From Commons to Commodities: permitted to steal water

A Great Lakes Commons understands water as a source of life, not just as a resource. It also questions popular claims about who owns water and the decision-making processes for how water is used. 

Let's look at one of the best examples of an anti-commons: bottled water.

There are currently hundreds of permits to take freshwater in the Great Lakes bioregion for the sole purpose of packaging it up and selling it for massive corporate profits -- such as 700 million dollars Nestlé made on bottled water in 2014.

Great Lakes Commons is working on a map to show the relationship between these permits in the Great Lakes, but let's look at one place in particular to see how this theft is regulated and resisted. 

Nestlé is currently in the process of stealing water from a place near Elora. Not only is Elora in the Province of Ontario and part of the Grand River watershed, it's within the borders of the Six Nations Confederacy - land promised to Indigenous people as part of Europe's conquest of North America.

A large tract of land on either side of the Grand River between Lake Ontario and Lake Eire. 

A large tract of land on either side of the Grand River between Lake Ontario and Lake Eire. 

A local group called Save Our Water has been organizing public events and trying to educate people about the impacts of water permits and the permitting process itself. It was shocking to learn that Ontario's Permit To Take Water process hasn't been refreshed since the 1980's. Do you remember seeing skids of bottled water for sale at gas stations and grocery stores in the 1980's? Likely not since this product hadn't been developed.

So how can the old permitting rules safely and fairly allow Nestlé's case to be heard? (Nestlé is just one example of the many companies converting water into a product - but just look at the scale of brands they own). 

It's truly a David and Goliath struggle and the volunteers at Save Our Water are doing their best to learn and teach the rest of us just how broken this bottled water permitting system is. Let's use the availability of data as an example.

In our quest to map bottled water permits in the Great Lakes (locations, companies, volumes) there was no consistent reporting system from the States and Provinces we contacted. One jurisdiction won't allow us to share the permit locations. Other jurisdictions don't differentiate permits for bottled water from other uses (like golf courses). It's also difficult to connect the permit process to consumer brand awareness since the permit holders usually sell water under one or more different brand names.

For instance, Lawrence Groves is on record for having a permit to take water, but he is the President of Oak Hills Artesian Water. The permit process is clearly not designed for consumer awareness on where their bottled water comes from. How can we fulfill our responsibilities to protect water when we don't know what watershed our water comes from?

In a previous blog post we have described issues of accessibility and this latest Nestlé case only furthers the need for more openness. Save Our Water is asking that Nestlé share its water testing data and to have the data accessed by a neutral 3rd party. No rules exist to guarantee this openness. Even when community groups are given the chance to comment on these water taking proposals, they often don't have access to vital data, nor the full expertise to interpret it.

We often get asked at GLC about the braiding of commons theory/practice with Indigenous rights and traditions. Because a commons is made through social agreements, its form and scale are relational. The video below does an excellent job of demonstrating how Europe's conquest of the world (especially Commonweath countries tied to Britain) was also a conquest of the commons and the associated relationships between various Indigenous nations and their mutualism with the living earth. As Glen Coulthard (Dene First Nation) reminds us, there is no land without relationship. There is also no commons without commoning. Imagine if Europeans would have 'discovered' North America with a commons compass and mindset.

Instead Europeans came with their Doctrine of Discovery, their Terra Nullius laws, and their Royal Proclamation to ease their courts and conscience for a continental land grab. These notions of European superiority not only leave behind murder and trauma, but twist the burden of proof. It's now up to Indigenous peoples to prove their claims of nationhood and self-determination (ie, who has access to resources and who gets to make/enforce the rules) on lands their ancestors lived with for thousands of years.

Another twist is the sad reality that 169 First Nation communities now rely on bottled water because their local waterways have been polluted by resource extraction and their water budgets are crippled by the Federal government's dishonouring of its Charter obligations. Bottled water is not only a product of consumerism but colonialism. How can we tackle both?

Returning to Elora, the 1784 Haldimand Proclamation gives the Six Nations Confederacy (Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, Senecas, and Tuscaroras) sole ownership of the same land now occupied by Elora and the requested water pumping site by Nestlé  (see map above).

But Nestlé is under no regulatory obligation to negotiate with Six Nations members, nor even the people/politicians of Elora. Other communities in the watershed (locally or with the Great Lakes) also have no power to determine Nestlé's application (to take 1.6 million litres of commons water a day for private profit. The decision solely lies with a Provincial Ministry using 35 year-old rules.

How convenient it is for settler governments to take Indigenous lands, offer other lands in exchange, and then sell those new lands to European newcomers. Elora was 'founded' in 1832, forty-eight years after the Haldimand Proclamation -- an agreement so abandoned and abused that the Six Nations reserve is only 5% of the promised land.

Speaking of dates, Save Our Water is part of a public event on October 28th near Elora hosted by the Centre Wellington Chapter of the Council of Canadians. Several speakers will be addressing Nestlé's social, ethical, and water license. Help spread the word.

But how well do water-watch dog groups do when it comes to the conquest of the commons?

Recent efforts in California to limit Nestlé's power revert to language (used by non-natives) such as: "this land is our land", water as a "public resource", and water belonging to every tax payer in the country. What about future generations and other species? There is often more care given to protecting native species than the rights of Native peoples.

'Water availability' is the usual campaign-frame against bottled water giants like Nestlé, but how does this frame honour a water-commons? Pinning the struggle on water volume stresses the ethic of "save some for us". Instead, a water-commoner could ask:

  • who should have (or already has) rights to access this water? 
  • what existing agreements need to be honoured?
  • how is the water being used to enhance life?
  • what is the relationship between the water taker and the water?
  • how does water show people their interdependencies and responsibilities to each other and to the water?
  • how well does our relationship with water connect us to our personal/collective choices for food & energy production, transportation & urbanization, and health & wealth making?
  • If water is relationship (like a relative or like a gift from a loved one) then what measures (instead of mere volume) best honour this relationship?

What questions would you ask as a water-commoner? 

The issues of bottled water are complex, but they can give us some powerful insights and instructions for protecting water. Like the shoreline and the sea, we can think of the relationships between:

  • today's permits & yesterday's Proclamations
  • bottled water as both a lifestyle want & life/death need
  • protecting water as public resource & protecting it as shared and sacred commons

Post your comments, share this post in your networks, and get in touch if you'd like to keep working on these issues with us.