The house and the common, a symbiotic relationship

The common and the individual, the communal forest and the vegetable gardens; two different parts of the same reality. Two parts of a symbiosis that has represented the history of a large part of the Galician and Barbanza Peninsula agricultural systems for centuries. 

Agriculture, grazing and forestry have historically been three parts of an intertwined system in Galicia. This is the result of a necessary relationship between community spaces and private spaces. The house is not only the building, it is also a micro community with decision-making logics, cooperation and, of course, conflictive relationships. The public vs. private dichotomy is blurred through a mesh of dense socio-ecological relationships that go beyond the individual vs. collective. The house and the communal forest are not separate entities, but are part of a system of inter-relationships.

The house and the communal forest are not separate entities, but are part of a system of inter-relationships which was the basis of a self-sufficient economy that supported the Galician and Barbantian population.

The communal forest was that large area that served for wood production or the use of the bush. Among the different types of scrub, the toxo (lat. ulex) was especially noteworthy. This was collected from the woodland and, once dry, was used as animal bedding in stables. When mixed with the animals’ excrement, it became a fertiliser which provided extraordinary fertility for poor soils such as those in Galicia in general and the Barbanza in particular.

The fact that the forest was expoited for its common resources in symbiosis with the private land of each house, allowed the agricultural intensification that made possible the great productivity of Galician agriculture without having to depend on the import of the great amounts of fertilizer, that nowadays support agricultural exploitation. The house and the communal areas were the basis of a self-sufficient economy that supported the Galician and Barbantian population.

The location of the three study areas in the Barbanza peninsula

We see cases like Froxán, in the Council of Lousame, the archetypal “coto redondo” (round grounds); a village structure in which the stables were located underneath, and the vegetable gardens beside, each house. The private part of each house was surrounded by the common land that served to support them.

On the other hand, Baroña (Council of Porto do Son), a place close to the sea was more densely populated, and the different villages were much closer together. The communal forest area is linked in this case to the parish and not to each village. This fact can be explained by the different possibilities offered by the land attached to each of the population units that made up the parish. In this case, the common territory that served as support for the family economy was much more extensive, as were the many more houses that were served by it.

It is not only the forests that are communal spaces, there are other territories whose use is common and where there is governance. The community was provided with a series of rules, there is a decision making process in which systems of distribution or collection among the neighbours are made explicit. That was the case in Brañas de Laíño, in the Council of Dodro, where the inhabitants of the parishes of San Xoan de Laíño, Dodro and Laíño complemented the use of the communal forest with the use of the braña (wetlands). This was a clear example of the exploitation of common resources for family economies, allowing the collection of grass or the use of the braña for livestock.

The symbiotic relationship that is established between the house and the communal area is bidirectional. This fact is well reflected in the criticism made by Anxo Angueira, a resident of Manselle, in the parish of Laíño, who was interviewed for this project. He questions the concept of “total preservation without citizens, “suggesting that the abandonment of the braña has negatively altered the ecosystem by not allowing, at present, its common use by the local population. According to him, the biodiversity that is valued today is the product of human activity, so he asks himself what world we want to see in the future. The preservation of ecosystems can be guaranteed through management by the community. Spaces that, through sustainable use, can be less prone to fires and other environmental problems, and which also become more biodiverse and multifunctional. The loss of the relationship between the house and the commons causes at the same time the loss of the multifunctionality of the territory.

The contributions of the common spaces to the houses also comes from the calorific energy, that provides the firewood and construction materials. Aurita Cao and Carmen Creo, residents of Froxán, in the parish of Vilacoba, explain it to us in this interview:

(English subtitles available through the video settings)

This symbiotic relationship of contribution to private economies and multifunctional use of communal spaces even reached the labour sphere outside the agroecosystems. A clear example of this is what used to happen in Baroña, where many people made their living from the sea, which was also connected to the forests. Ramón Vila Queiruga, resident of Penas in the parish of Baroña, tells us in an interview how his wife’s family were “boureleiros“, who made fishing tackle from the cork trees. But as Ramón Vila Queiruga points out, the sea was also a common space, providing the houses with different types of algae. This biomass was used to fertilize the land or was sold, like the “carrouchas de mar“, an algae that had medicinal uses.

The preservation of ecosystems can be guaranteed through management by the community. Spaces that, through sustainable use, can be less prone to fires and other environmental problems, and which also become more biodiverse and multifunctional. The loss of the relationship between the house and the commons causes at the same time the loss of the multifunctionality of the territory.

The relationship between the house and the common does not stop there. It was not only the forests or brañas that were the common elements that served as the backbone of the community’s economic systems. The mills, the threshing floors and the washing places and fountains were other elements that were used and/or managed in a communal way. It is not yet know which decisions were taken in the house when it came to the community management of these spaces. In the house there were also power imbalances. Throughout different texts, a debate focused on the domestic will be started, and that is also political. 

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Froxán (Lousame) is a village marked by the fact that it was one of three that were occupied at the end of the 19th century by the San Finx mines. These mines exploited tungsten, which led to the common land being occupied and the local population being denied its management.
Baroña Forest Community (Porto do Son) covers 846 hectares. Within it there are 186 houses that are registered as communal and in their management make a clear commitment to the multifunctional use of the forest.
The house and the communal forest are not separate entities, but are part of a system of inter-relationships which was the basis of a self-sufficient economy that supported the Galician and Barbantian population.
The territorial structure of Galicia, in which parishes and villages are the basic cells of its organization, kept its productive character almost intact until the mid-20th century. Despite changes in lifestyles, a whole series of community values have generally been maintained, which can only be understood from a social perspective.
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