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The Great Lakes Are Declared a Commons

A diverse group of activists from both sides of the border declares the lakes a common endowment

Map courtesy of Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment

On the Commons and Council of Canadians hosted a landmark gathering of activists from around the Great lakes in mid-November at the Blue Mountain Center in the Adirondacks of upstate New York. Maude Barlow, President of the Council of Canadians, built momentum for the meeting with her rousing keynote address at the Environmental Grantmakers Association in October calling on environmental, global justice and other social movements to unite around protecting the water commons.

“The Great Lakes crisis is part of the global crisis, in which we are quickly running out of fresh water.,” Barlow told the group at Blue Mountain. “It’s not a closed hydrological cycle like we were taught— we are losing clean water through irrigation, bottled water, virtual water trade and more.

“Scientists say that the Great Lakes could be bone dry in 80 years,” Barlow added, citing the case of the Aral Sea, once one of the fourth largest lake in the world, but now just 10 percent of its former size. “The World Bank says that water demand is outstripping supply by 40%, producing great suffering.”

A sense of urgency about the future of the Great Lakes infused the meeting, which was attended by people from Ontario, New York State, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and other places. These five lakes, which hold 21 percent of the world’s fresh water, are also losing water due to excessive water diversions for industry and fracking (fracturing rock formations and flushing them with water to produce extract oil and natural gas).

Pollution fears are now heightened as cities ringing the lakes struggle with federal budget cuts and reduced tax revenue, which mean less funds for improvements to make sure sewage doesn’t overflow into the waters.

Social justice issues about water are also paramount. Charity Hicks, secretary of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network and board member of the Detroit People’s Water Board, said that “two years ago in Detroit, 42,000 people didn’t have water. Now there are 72,000. It’s like Port-au-Prince but different in that we’re sitting on huge water resources.”

And the rising threat of privatization, in which corporations take ownership of something belonging to all us, looms large. Sue Chiblow, Environment Coordinator to the Chiefs of Ontario (a coordinating body of the province’s First Nations organizations) said, “With gifts come responsibilities. Just as you wouldn’t walk into someone’s house and take things, likewise you can’t just take from the earth.”

All these thoughts provided a backdrop for the meeting of activists from both urban and rural communities, indigenous nations, environmental organizations, national and international justice movements, legal associations, commons groups and others seeking a game-changing strategy for protecting our water.

“In order to see full picture of what was going on with the Lakes, we needed to break out of the usual silos (social justice separate from ecological protection separate from commons concerns and First Nations issues) to open the door to a powerful force for change,” said Alexa Bradley of On The Commons. This can happen when a constellation of community leaders make way for diverse and sometimes unlikely alliances.

A diverse set of inspiring leaders were present, ranging from David Arquette of the Haudenosaunee Environmental Task Force, which protects ancestral land and water along the St. Lawrence River; Charity Hicks of the Detroit People’s Water Board, which works to ensure basic access to water for poor and marginalized communities; to Jim Olson, who with the organization Flow for Water leads legal efforts to declare the Great Lakes a public trust. Representatives from national and international groups like the Council of Canadians, Food and Water Watch, The Blue Planet Project and On The Commons worked alongside representatives from community based groups, like Chicago’s Little Village Environmental Justice Organization and Milwaukee’s Victory Garden Initiative to create an initial strategy framework for reclaiming and protecting the Great Lakes for future generations.

Anil Naidoo from the Council of Canadians Blue Planet Project said, “Looking at cultures and natural flows provides a whole new appreciation for the abundance and gifts of the Great Lakes.”

The Blue Mountain Center gathering allowed the group to we develop deeper knowledge of our unique individual stories as well as our shared commitment to the Commons and the Lakes.

After three days, the group articulated a powerful and unifying s mission:
“FOR THE GREAT LAKES WATERSHED TO BE DECLARED AND LIVED AS A COMMONS, PUBLIC TRUST AND PROTECTED BIOREGION”

To achieve this goal all of us agreed to build together a multi-dimensional, multi-cultural, cross-border movement “to claim our Great Lakes as Our Commons.”

Our work is rooted in a growing understanding of what it means to operate from a sense of commons principles in order to foster a living commons.

At it’s core, this approach seeks ecological stewardship, participatory governance and a central voice for those most disenfranchised from decision making. Watch OnTheCommons.org for more on this Great Lakes Commons initiative and please contact us (fbrown@onthecommons.org) if you would like to know more or be involved.

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