Carta de Foresta: A guide for protecting the commons and individual rights

Par Yves Faguy mai 15, 201715 mai 2017

Carta de Foresta: A guide for protecting the commons and individual rights


As far as medieval English Charters go, Magna Carta, famous for curbing royal authority and arbitrary use of power, is unquestionably the most celebrated. Lesser known today, but no less successful in its own time, is the Great Charter’s younger cousin, Carta de Foresta.

Also known as the Charter of the Forest of 1217, it was radically in its impact, in that it returned to private ownership vast areas of forest that had been expropriated by England’s kings, all the way back to William the Conqueror.  It also gave a right of common access to royal private lands.

It was issued by the nine-year old King Henry III in 1217, and reaffirmed many times thereafter over the next eight centuries, often in tandem with Magna Carta.  Carta de Foresta remained in force as a statute in England until it was replaced by the superbly named Wild Creatures and Forest Laws Act in 1971.

According to Daniel Magraw, an expert in international and environmental law at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Carta de Foresta was remarkable in that it transformed remaining royal forest into commons, with rules designed to be sustainable.

“It set a precedent that the law should apply to everyone – something that Magana Carta didn’t,” he told a crowd at the CBA Environmental, Energy & Resource Summit in Montreal in April. “It was largely responsible for maintaining the relevancy of Magna Carta as it was the focus of more frequent litigation in the courts.”

In the 13th century, royal forests were an important source of food for common people. The Charter was revolutionary in that it guaranteed a right to live of the fruits of forest land  — wheher  it was for foraging, grazing animals, or gathering wood.

“Henceforth every freeman, in his wood or on his land that he has in the forest, may with impunity make a mill, fish-preserve, pond, marl-pit, ditch, or arable in cultivated land outside coverts, provided that no injury is thereby given to any neighbor,” it reads.

Magraw adds that Carta de Foresta is relevant today as it emphasizes the importance of both forest and commons that are now under threat all around the world.

Hundreds of millions of hectares of forest have been destroyed since the 1990s and research shows that deforestation contributes somewhere in the neighbourhood of 10 to 15 per cent of global greenhouse-gas emissions annually.

There has been renewed interest of late in the Carta de Foresta, partly because it is now 800 years old.  It has also inspired advocates of the right to a basic income, who see the right of access to the commons – air, land, water – as the key to exercising one’s right to a livelihood, but in a way that protects them against overuse.

“In the face of those kinds of threats, it’s useful top think back to previous successful examples,” says Magraw, who argues that the principles and the processes underlying Carta de Foresta are still relevant. “The forests that it protected by are still vibrant and sustainable today.”

And indeed people have invoked the rights granted under the Forest Charter to ensure a better governance of shared resources and that lands are preserved in common usage.

“It gives us guidance and hope that with creativity and political will we can deal with these challenges,” he says. “It’s really up to us.”


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