Commons Future; Environmental and Global Justice Movement

The global water crisis is the greatest ecologi­cal and human threat humanity has ever faced.…By 2030, global demand for water will exceed supply by 40% – an astounding figure foretelling of terrible suffering.

Excerpts from a speech by Maude Barlow to the Environmental Grantmakers Association

We all know that the earth and all upon it face a growing crisis.…We are pol­luting our lakes, rivers and streams to death. Every day, 2 million tonnes of sewage and industrial and agricultural waste are discharged into the world’s water, the equivalent of the weight of the entire hu­man population of 6.8 billion people. The amount of wastewater produced annually is about six times more water than exists in all the rivers of the world.…The global water crisis is the greatest ecologi­cal and human threat humanity has ever faced.…By 2030, global demand for water will exceed supply by 40% – an astounding figure foretelling of terrible suffering.

Knowing there will not be enough food and water for all in the near future, wealthy countries and global invest­ment, pension and hedge funds are buying up land and water, fields and forests in the global South, creating a new wave of invasive colonialism that will have huge geo-political ramifications.

I do not think it possible to exaggerate the threat to our earth and every living thing upon it.…While mouthing platitudes about caring for the earth, most of our govern­ments are deepening the crisis with new plans for expand­ed resource exploitation, unregulated free trade deals, more invasive investment, the privatization of absolutely everything and unlimited growth. This model of develop­ment is literally killing the planet.

Unlimited growth assumes unlimited resources, and this is the genesis of the crisis. Quite simply, to feed the increasing demands of our consumer based system, hu­mans have seen nature as a great resource for our personal convenience and profit, not as a living ecosystem from which all life springs. So we have built our economic and development policies based on a human-centric model and assumed either that nature would never fail to provide or that, where it does fail, technology will save the day.

Two Problems of the Environmental Movement

Most environmental groups either have bought into the dominant model of devel­opment or feel incapable of changing it. The main form of environmental protection in industrialized countries is based on the regulatory sys­tem, legalizing the discharge of large amounts of toxics into the environment. Environmen­talists work to minimize the damage from these systems, essentially fighting for inadequate laws based on curbing the worst practices, but leaving intact the system of eco­nomic globalization at the heart of the problem. Hence, the support of false solutions such as carbon markets, which, in effect, privatize the atmosphere by creating a new form of property rights over natural resources. Carbon markets are predicated less on reducing emissions than on the desire to make carbon cuts as cheap as possible for large corporations.

Another false solution is the move to turn water into private property, which can then be hoarded, bought and sold on the open market….Then there is PES, or Payment for Ecological Services, which puts a price tag on ecologi­cal goods – clean air, water, soil etc, – and the services such as water purification, crop pollination and carbon sequestration that sustain them. A market model of PES is an agreement between the “holder” and the “consumer” of an ecosystem service, turning that service into an en­vironmental property right. Clearly this system privatizes nature…

The second problem with our movement is one of si­los. For too long environmentalists have toiled in isolation from those communities and groups working for human and social justice and for fundamental change to the sys­tem….

The clearest example I have is in the area I know best, the freshwater crisis. The ecological and human water cri­ses are intricately linked, and to deal effectively with ei­ther means dealing with both. The notion that inequitable access can be dealt with by finding more money to pump more groundwater is based on a misunderstanding that as­sumes unlimited supply, when in fact humans everywhere are overpumping groundwater supplies. Similarly, the hope that communities will cooperate in the restoration of their water systems when they are desperately poor and have no way of conserving or cleaning the limited sources they use is a cruel fantasy. The ecological health of the planet is intricately tied to the need for a just system of water distribution.

The global water justice movement is, I believe, suc­cessfully incorporating concerns about the growing eco­logical water crisis with the promotion of just economic, food and trade policies to ensure water for all. We strongly believe that fighting for equitable water in a world running out means taking better care of the water we have, not just finding supposedly endless new sources. Through count­less gatherings where we took the time to really hear one another – especially grassroots groups and tribal peoples closest to the struggle – we developed a set of guiding principles and a vision for an alternative future that are uni­versally accepted in our movement and have served us well in times of stress. We are also deeply critical of the trade and development policies of the World Trade Organization, the World Bank and the World Water Council (whom I call the “Lords of water”), and we openly challenge their model and authority.

Similarly, a fresh and exciting new movement ex­ploded onto the scene in Copenhagen. The climate justice movement whose motto is Change the System, Not the Climate, arrived to challenge not only the stalemate of the government negotiators but the stale state of too cosy alli­ances between major environmental groups, international institutions and big business – the traditional “players” on the climate scene.…

How the Commons Fits In

I deeply believe it is time for us to extend these power­ful new movements, which fuse the analysis and hard work of the environmental community with the vision and com­mitment of the justice community, into a whole new form of governance that not only challenges the current model of unlimited growth and economic globalization but promotes an alternative that will allow us and the Earth to survive. Quite simply, human-centred governance systems are not working and we need new economic, development, and en­vironmental policies as well as new laws that articulate an entirely different point of view from that which underpins most governance systems today. At the centre of this new paradigm is the need to protect natural ecosystems and to ensure the equitable and just sharing of their bounty. It also means the recovery of an old concept called the Commons.

The Commons is based on the notion that just by be­ing members of the human family, we all have rights to certain common heritages, be they the atmosphere and oceans, freshwater and genetic diversity, or culture, lan­guage and wisdom. In most traditional societies, it was assumed that what belonged to one belonged to all. Many indigenous societies to this day cannot conceive of deny­ing a person or a family basic access to food, air, land, water and livelihood. Many modern societies extended the same concept of universal access to the notion of a social Commons, creating education, health care and social se­curity for all members of the community. Since adopting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, gov­ernments are obliged to protect the human rights, cultural diversity and food security of their citizens.

A central characteristic of the Commons is the need for careful collaborative management of shared resources by those who use them and allocation of access based on a set of priorities. A Commons is not a free-for-all. We are not talk­ing about a return to the notion that nature’s capacity to sustain our ways is unlimited and anyone can use whatever they want, how­ever they want, whenever they want. It is rooted rather in a sober and realistic assessment of the true damage that has already been unleashed on the world’s biological herit­age as well as the knowledge that our ecosystems must be managed and shared in a way that protects them now and for all time.

Also to be recovered and expanded is the notion of the Public Trust Doctrine, a longstanding legal principle which holds that certain natural resources, particularly air, water and the oceans, are central to our very existence and therefore must be protected for the common good and not allowed to be appropriated for private gain. Under the Public Trust Doctrine, governments exercise their fidu­ciary responsibilities to sustain the essence of these re­sources for the long-term use and enjoyment of the entire populace, not just the privileged who can buy inequitable access.…

An exciting new network of Canadian, American and First Nations communities around the Great Lakes is determined to have these lakes named as a Commons, a public trust and a protected bioregion.

Equitable access to natural resources is another key character of the Commons. These resources are not there for the taking by private interests who can then deny them to anyone without means. The human right to land, food, water, health care and biodiversity are being codified as we speak from nation-state constitutions to the United Nations.…Community-based governance is another basic tenet of the Commons.

Inspiring Successes Around the Globe

Another crucial tenet of the new paradigm is the need to put the natural world back into the centre of our exist­ence. If we listen, nature will teach us how to live….

Life and livelihoods have been returned to communi­ties in Rajasthan, India, through a system of rainwater harvesting that has made desertified land bloom and rivers run again thanks to the collective action of villagers. The city of Salisbury South Australia, has become an interna­tional wonder for greening desertified land in the wake of historic low flows of the Murray River. It captures every drop of rain that falls from the sky and collects storm and wastewater and funnels it all through a series of wetlands, which clean it, to underground natural aquifers, which store it, until it is needed.

In a “debt for nature” swap, Canada, the US and the Netherlands cancelled the debt owed to them by Colom­bia in exchange for the money being used for watershed restoration. The most exciting project is the restoration of 16 large wetland areas of the Bogotá River, which is badly contaminated, to pristine condition. Eventually the plan is to clean up the entire river. True to principles of the Com­mons, the indigenous peoples living on the sites were not removed, but rather, have become caretakers of these pro­tected and sacred places.

The natural world also needs its own legal framework, what South African environmental lawyer Cormac Cul­llinen calls “wild law.” The quest is a body of law that recognizes the inherent rights of the environment, other species and water itself outside of their usefulness to hu­mans. A wild law is a law to regulate human behaviour in order to protect the integrity of the earth and all species on it. It requires a change in the human relationship with the natural world from one of exploitation to one of democ­racy with other beings. If we are members of the earth’s community, then our rights must be balanced against those of plants, animals, rivers and ecosystems.…

This kind of legal framework is already being estab­lished. The Indian Supreme Court has ruled that protec­tion of natural lakes and ponds is akin to honouring the right to life – the most fundamental right of all according to the Court. In 2008, Ecuador’s citizens voted two thirds in support of a new constitution, which says, “Natural communities and ecosystems possess the unalienable right to exist, flourish and evolve within Ecuador.” Bolivia has recently amended its constitution to enshrine the philoso­phy of “living well” as a means of expressing concern with the current model of development and signifying affinity with nature and the need for humans to recognize inherent rights of the earth and other living beings.

The most far-reaching proposal for the protection of nature itself is the Universal Declaration on the Rights of Mother Earth that was drafted at the April 2010 World People’s Conference on Climate Change in Cochabamba, Bolivia and endorsed by the 35,000 participants there. Every now and then in history, the human race takes a col­lective step forward in its evolution. Such a time is upon us now as we begin to understand the urgent need to protect the earth and its ecosystems from which all life comes. The Universal Declaration on the Rights of Mother Earth must become a history-altering covenant toward a just and sustainable future for all.

***

Maude Barlow, a former UN Senior Water Advisor, is National Chairperson of the Council of Canadians and founder of the Blue Planet Project.

To read the full speech, see www.onthecommons.org/our-commons-future-already-here

[From WS November/December 2010]

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