Great Lakes Commons Charter sets new high bar for water governance

An article about our organization was recently published by Great Lakes Echo

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Great Lakes Commons charter targets shared waters concept
by: Heather Hartmann

'Imagine the Great Lakes as shared waters cared for and protected by the entire region’s community. That’s the vision of a group called the Great Lakes Commons.

Members are people from Indigenous Nations, Canada and the U.S. The organization is officially introducing its charter at a virtual meeting of nearly 100 people on Thursday.

“Creating a social charter for the Great Lakes will engage people and communities around the bioregion in laying the foundation for a Great Lakes Commons – all of us have a right to care and a role to play in creating a new future,” said Alexa Bradley, the co-director of the Milwaukee Water Commons and a leader of the Great Lakes Commons effort. “The charter will gather the beliefs and commitments of the different peoples of the bio-region, and by doing this, we will be asserting the legitimacy of these ideas and our role in shaping the governance for our lakes.”

The meeting of invitees allows those interested in the commons and its charter to ask about the next steps.

The charter consists of a declaration or call to action and a first principles section for community responses. Those community response fall within three categories: first peoples and languages, community responses and proposals, and legal and policy frameworks. Anyone can contribute to the first principles through the website by clicking on the charter tab.

“We will gather these over time and they will reflect the collected wisdom of people living in the bioregion about the care of the waters,” said Bradley. “We intend them to serve as a tool as communities work to care for their waters, set good policies and practices, address threats, teach responsible behavior.”

The Great Lakes Commons is a grassroots organization that started four to five years ago when On The Commons, a commons movement strategy center in Minneapolis, co-hosted a gathering of environmental justice activists, indigenous leaders, public trust advocates and others concerned about the Lakes.

Since then, it has developed the Great Lakes Commons map. It’s creator and coordinator, Paul Baines, a resident of Canada, says the map collects stories as text, photos, videos, links and audio files from those who live in the region.

“We’re working on the Great Lakes issue and trying to see it differently, and maps have always played an important role in our perception of things,” said Baines. He said the single, place-based map seemed to be the best way to go about it. Anyone is able to go to the virtual map and share their story about how they are connected to the Great Lakes. With each addition, another mark is made on the map, allowing others to click and access the story.

The charter has been the focus of the Great Lakes Commons for the past two years. Its goal is the same as that of the map.

“The charter, like the commons map, is another attempt, another method of practicing looking at the Great Lakes as a commons,” said Baines. “What the charter is doing is it’s laying out a different kind of agreement than what we have right now.”

The initiative is multi-faceted, bringing the indigenous nations and others living in the region into the decision-making process. That’s really where the power is, said Ricardo Levins Morales, the group’s cultural organizer.

“Government agencies, places like that, just reflect power,” he said. “They don’t generate it. It’s the moon versus the sun. You can do a lot by moonlight, but it’s not creating its own light. It’s reflecting it. So that if you want to do things, if you want to get government agencies or corporations or anyone that offensively holds power to do anything, you have to create enough sun power on the outside that it gets reflected in those spaces.”

Baines said people need to recognize their responsibility for the region.

“The government doesn’t own these resources or doesn’t own these lands or whatever,” he said. “They are governing them on our behalf. And if we don’t feel as if our needs are being incorporated into that decisionmaking, then we need to be extra not only offended by that dismissal, but to really figure out how to energize ourselves and get beyond our own.”

The new charter is supposed to embrace this concept.

By “doing so we are able to insure that the lakes will thrive in perpetuity and generations to come can depend on them for life and well being,” Bradley said.

There have been collaborative agreements over the past 100 years looking at shared governance of the Great Lakes, she said. This commons is something new.

Baines said the greatest resource the charter and the commons have are the region’s 45 million people

“The ideal is for people to sort of start opening up to the idea there is actually an alternative being built,” he said.'