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UPDATE: The Great Lakes as a commons and a public trust

The Council of Canadians is applying the concept of the commons and public trust doctrine to our campaign to defend the Great Lakes.

Maude Barlow writes that, “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. …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. …Community-based governance is another basic tenet of the Commons.”

On the Commons (formerly Tomales Bay Institute) is a network of citizens and organizations exploring new ways to achieve social justice, environmental harmony and democratic participation at all levels of society. They say, “The commons is a new way to express a very old idea—that some forms of wealth belong to all of us, and that these community resources must be actively protected and managed for the good of all. The commons are the things that we inherit and create jointly, and that will (hopefully) last for generations to come. The commons consists of gifts of nature such as air, oceans and wildlife as well as shared social creations such as libraries, public spaces, scientific research and creative works.”

Barlow also writes that the “Public Trust Doctrine (is) 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. The Public Trust Doctrine was first codified in 529 A.D. by Emperor Justinius who declared: ‘By the laws of nature, these things are common to all mankind: the air, running water, the sea and consequently the shores of the sea.'”

On The Commons defines the public trust doctrine as, “A legal doctrine that says that the state holds certain resources in trust for its citizens which cannot be given away or sold. Public trust doctrine has its origins in Roman law, which recognized that certain resources such as fisheries, air, running water and wild animals belong to all. Under the doctrine of res communes, the king could not grant exclusive rights of access to a common resource. The point is that there is a clear distinction between common property (which belongs to the people) and state property (which can be controlled and mismanaged by government).”

In our recent submission to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission opposing the shipment of radioactive steam generators on the Great Lakes, researcher Emma Lui stated, “We believe that the Great Lakes specifically and water in general are part of the global commons and a public trust and that any decision that affects water affects us all.”

A media release from this past March by the Michigan Public Trust Coalition states, “U.S. House Representative Bart Stupak (D-Michigan), whose Congressional district embraces more coastline than any congressmen in the U.S., warned against special interests taking over the public trust in the Great Lakes. ‘The Michigan public trust bill is essential to protecting the Great Lakes. The desires of foreign and out-of-state interests should never supercede the interests of Michigan residents.'” More on this at http://www.greatlakestownhall.org/forums/community-bulletin/3639.

Barlow has highlighted that, “An exciting new network of Canadian, American and First Nations communities around the Great Lakes is determined to have these lakes names a Commons, a public trust and a protected bioregion.”

To that end, the Council of Canadians will be attending a planning meeting from November 11-14 at the Blue Mountain Center in New York state. This will be an opportunity to explore with our allies how to further a campaign to defend the Great Lakes from a multiplicity of threats.

For more on the threats facing the Great Lakes, go to http://canadians.org/campaignblog/?p=3796.

To read the 39-page document ‘Our Water Commons’ by Maude Barlow, please go to http://canadians.org/water/publications/water%20commons/index.html.