From Atlas Etnográfico de Vasconia
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Common land seems to be have been the land-use system for a long period of time, at least for the pasture land in upland or uninhabited areas. In general, the low-lying land close to the settlements was first cultivated and therefore the first to become private property while the community continued to be able to use the rest of the land freely. Ploughing the land for crops was at the cost of pasture and fields for forage. The new grazing land was obtained by clearing woodland.

Characteristics and evolution

Common land was defined as not belonging to anybody in particular, but rather to a community. There is a very appropriate expression in Basque to describe this situation: “iñorena ez dan basoa"; namely, the mountain does not belong to anyone in particular, or in other words, the mountain belongs to everyone.

That land “belonging to no one” used to be administered by associations, brotherhoods or parzonerias [supramunicipal land usage councils], institutions that represented the interests of the shepherds and stockmen using that pasture land. When the General Local Council Act was applied to the charter territories in the 19th century (1841), those local councils took over the management of the common land under their jurisdiction. In general, that marked the start of the common land being considered as being municipally owned, herribasoak[1].

The commons or common land can belong to a single municipal district, in which case its residents have the use and enjoyment of the land (although according to the terms and conditions established as applicable). The commons can come under two or more municipal districts, meaning that it can be used by residents of different municipalities according to regulations overseen by a pastoral entity (Parzonería, supramunicipal land usage council). A third case is the common land that without belonging to a specific municipal district (such is the case of the Bardenas Reales) are used by residents of different municipalities, either according to a time-honoured tradition or by means of agreements[2].

Common land is not only and exclusively used for grass pasture land and there are other types of grazing (acorns and chestnuts, for example) on land that livestock can freely access.

Shrinkage and loss of common land

Open or common land has steadily shrunk in size and, in many cases, the common rights eroded. This has been particularly down to the depopulation of the rural areas and the changes to the ways of life during the second half of the 20th century. However, the shrinkage of common land started prior to that. Common land in the Southern Basque Country (lying within Spain) suffered great losses during the 19th century, the Disentailment Act forced, in some cases, the privatisation of the former common land: this led to the disappearance of community institutions that governed its use, which is what occurred in Álava to the Izki Alto and Izki Bajo Communities and to the Ayala Brotherhood, which administered the Sierra Salvada grazing land.

The debts run up by the municipalities to fund the troops during the wars that ravished the Southern Basque Country during the 19th century were another reason behind the privatisation. Many of the local councils awarded plots of common land to individuals who could pay them with money. It was a way to obtain funds to settle those debts.

Customary institutions, made up of local residents and known as kofradiak (guilds) can still be found in many municipalities of inland Bizkaia. Their organisation and strength endured according to the common land that they oversaw; their heyday as customary entities continued well into the 19th century. Their municipal assets were mainly privatised in the second half of that century which led to their decline.

In Gipuzkoa, the common land was found to have disappeared (as far as the surveyed locations are concerned) in Astigarraga, Berastegi, Elgoibar and Getaria. Common land still exists, albeit symbolically, at other points, such as Beasain, Oñati and Hondarribia.

In the Northern Basque Country (lying within France), the public authorities were the driving force behind the partitioning and selling off of common land in the second half of the 18th century; even the clearing and ploughing of the land was not taxed for some time. Consequently, the shepherds and herdsmen had to go higher up to find summer grazing land. Yet very little common land was sold off in reality. During the French Revolution, the institutions of the Ancién Régime were abolished and those included the territorial entities with the name of pays (e.g. Pays de Soule, Pays de Cize) and which held the titles to the common land. Consequently, that land became the property of the municipalities.

  1. Regarding this municipal ownership, which, in his opinion, was land seizure, an old shepherd of Gorbea (B), Patxi Etxebarria “Patxi Azkarra” (+1981), used to ironically say: “orreik ez dira erribasoak lapurbasoak baiño” / these are not the “mountains of the people” but rather “mountains stolen (from the people)”.
  2. Alfredo FLORISTÁN.“Los comunes en Navarra” in Actes du Quatrième Congrés International d’Études Pyrénéennes (Pau-Lourdes, 1962). Volume IV. Toulouse, 1964, pp. 74-86.