Usufructuary rights

“It is the responsibility of society to preserve and utilize the common property of the society in a proper way. Society should utilize this properly to ensure that all may enjoy equal usufructuary rights so that all can live together with a healthy body and a healthy mind.” – PR Sarkar – ‘The Responsibility of Society’ – May 1960

The old Roman Law concept of usufructuary rights in relation to resources including land was a good one. The concept of a ‘usufruct’ refers to rights and responsibilities in using something, and recognises that the thing or entity belongs to an environment in common with other things/entities. As well, it looks at resources across generations and collectively. Under a usufruct, users may benefit from the use, but their actions must not threaten to commit waste. This is an important principle that has to be emphasized in utilization of any resource.

Accordingly, human users have an obligation to others (including the animal world and its species, and the plant world and its species) and to their future users and generations, in relation to land and indeed any resources. The prohibition against waste demands that full consideration be given to the ecological well-being of the Earth’s resources (animate and inanimate), and their responsible use and care.

This type of consciousness has to be re-awaked across society and our economic relationships. There is a need for revival of the usufructuary rights concept to manage what is originally common shared resources, and also for individuals or persons who have rights carved out for their own use to responsibly manage the resources that go with those rights.

There are many other areas where groups in societies have developed rules to ensure that common pool resources are managed sustainably – after all, these are inherited collectively from generation to generation. Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel Prize in Economics for studying this area and identifying the principles that applied.

A typical response to actions that degrade common pool resources (sometimes called the ‘tragedy of the commons’) is to advocate absolute private ownership, but this often only makes the problem worse by excluding people from using the resource when it remains vacant, and vacant for no good reason – not even its preservation. Whereas, under a cooperative economic approach there is the proper mix of sense of public well-being, social responsibility and sense of individual participation and ownership through, say, cooperative shares. In this way, taking into account these and other complex factors around the resource itself, a usufructuary approach (which involves sustainability) can be more easily achieved – this is economic democracy.

It is not a communistic / commune system. But rather a cooperative one. What is the difference?  It is explained somewhat in this extract: “In the commune system there is no personal ownership. Without a sense of personal ownership people do not labour hard or care for any property. If farmers feel they have permanent usufructuary rights to the land they will get a better out-turn. Such a sentiment is suppressed in the commune system … “. – P.R. Sarkar – ‘Cooperatives’ – 18 February 1988, Calcutta

Thus according to Sarkar, there can also be permanency of usufructuary rights. Many rules of societies in the past which had a sustainable commons approach recognised this concept as well. However, permanency is not the same as absolute ownership. Permanency, gives a guarantee of use which is not necessarily subject to time, but does not remove all the relative factors, and impositions by society, that are needed for proper land and resource management. That is, the user does not have absolute control.

We are going to need to return to the principles for managing common pool resources to manage the oceans, atmosphere and other critical resources if we are going to have a sustainable world. Again Sarkar spells it out: “The universe is the collective property of all. All people have usufructuary rights but no one has the right to misuse this collective property. If a person acquires and accumulates excessive wealth, he or she directly curtails the happiness and convenience of others in society. Such behaviour is flagrantly antisocial. Therefore, no one should be allowed to accumulate wealth without the permission of society.” – in Ananda Sutram, no. 5-12 (writing under the name Shrii Shrii Anandamurti).

A short overview of the work of Elinor Ostrom can be found at:

And the concept of a usufruct is briefly explained at: