Tag Archives: indigenous rights

A Great Commons Narrative for the Great Lakes

A few days ago, the International Human Rights Law Clinic at UC Berkeley School of Law released its report on the Human Right to Water Bill in California. Directed at State agencies, the report discusses the obligations these agencies have to consider the human right to water, as required by California Assembly Bill 685. Specifically it outlines what the duty “to consider” entails, discusses the human right to water, and offers some guidelines for implementation of AB 685.

Not every state has California’s water problems, but all states need to recognize the human right to water and put it on the public agenda. “The human right to water,” in the words of the UN’s Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, “is indispensable for leading a life in human dignity” and (to continue with the language of General Comment No. 15) “a prerequisite for the realization of other human rights.”

And yet even where water is abundant, we find this basic right threatened and compromised when it should be respected and protected. As I’ve noted elsewhere, the UN High Commission on Human Rights expressed concern on a recent visit that in some regions of the United States, mining and extractive industries are compromising the human right to water; that concern now must extend even to the Great Lakes area, where one of the biggest mining operations in the world is about to be staged around Lake Superior, one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world.

A 2011 report issued by the Council of Canadians finds that “the human right to water is being violated in a number of communities around the Great Lakes,” especially but not exclusively in indigenous communities. The report, entitled Our Great Lakes Commons [pdf], lays out “a people’s plan” to remedy this situation and to save and protect Lake Superior and all the Great Lakes as our “common heritage.” I came to the report after reading an op-ed in the May 1 edition of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel by its author, Maude Barlow, National Chairperson of the Council of Canadians and Chair of the organization Food and Water Watch. In her thought-provoking piece for the Journal-Sentinel and in this passage from her 2011 report, Barlow roots the human right to water in what she terms a broad “narrative” of the Commons:

The notion of the Commons is a very old one. A Commons narrative asserts that no one owns water. Rather it is a common heritage that belongs to the Earth, other species and future generations as well as our own. Because it is a flow resource necessary for life and ecosystem health, and because there is no substitute for it, water must be regarded as a public Commons and a public good and preserved as such for all time in law and practice. Embracing the Commons helps us to restore to the centrestage a whole range of social and ecological phenomena that market economics regards as “externalities.” A language of the Commons would restore more democratic control over the Great Lakes and establish their care and stewardship the joint responsibility of citizens and their elected governments based on the notions of social equity, ecological survival and governance by the people most impacted.

The Commons approach is based on the belief 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. There are many working examples of Commons in North America today that include systems of national, state and provincial parks, cooperative fishing compacts to protect local stocks from depletion, and public libraries.

A Great Lakes Basin Commons would reject the view that the primary function of the Great Lakes is to promote the interests of industry and the powerful and give them preferential access to the Lakes’ bounties. It would embrace the belief that the Great Lakes form an integrated ecosystem with resources that are to be equitably shared and carefully managed for the good of the whole community. In a Commons framework, water is a fundamental human right that must be accessible to all. Private control of water cannot address itself to the issues of conservation, justice or democracy, the underpinnings of a solution to the crisis of the Great Lakes. Only citizens and their governments acting on their behalf can operate on these principles. Under a Commons regime, all private sector activity would come under strict public oversight and government accountability, and all would have to operate within a mandate, whose goals are the restoration and preservation of the waters of the Basin and water justice for all those who live around it.

At the same time, it is not a return to the notion that the Great Lakes are indestructible due to their size, or what has come to be known as “the tragedy of the commons.” It is rooted rather in a sober and realistic assessment of the true damage that has already been unleashed on the Great Lakes as well as the knowledge that they must be managed and shared in a way that protects them now and for all time.

Polluting the Future — A Question of Human Rights

Last week, the organization Earthworks released Polluting The Future, a report focusing on “the staggering amount of our nation’s water supplies that are perpetually polluted by mining” and the “rapidly escalating national dilemma” of perpetual mine management.

Perpetual is the key word here. Forty existing hardrock mines pollute 17-27 billion gallons of water per year, “and will do so in perpetuity,” for hundreds if not thousands of years. Include other mines likely to contribute to the problem, and take into account four new big mining projects currently being proposed, and the number jumps: to 37-47 billion gallons of polluted water every year. Pour that all into 8 oz water bottles and stack them one on top of the other and you can go to the moon and back about 100 times.

When Earthworks adds up the cost of treating this perpetual pollution, the figure is staggering: 62 to 73 billion dollars a year. That’s one very powerful way to talk about the social cost of mining — a cost that the mining companies (many of them foreign-based multinationals) are passing directly to the American public. The EPA “questions the ability of businesses to sustain” treatment and management efforts for the required length of time. That’s putting it mildly. As Earthworks points out, “most corporations have existed for far fewer than 100 years… Mining corporations simply won’t be around to manage water treatment that will continue for thousands of years.” They are passing along the true costs of their operations to all of us, for generations to come.

I was hoping to find some discussion of the proposed mining on Lake Superior. It’s a subject I’ve blogged about before — here and here, for instance — and I’m trying to put together a documentary project on the subject as well. So I was left wondering where the Rio Tinto / Kennecott Eagle Mine and the many other new mining projects around the perimeter of Lake Superior fit in the scheme Earthworks presents here.

It seems largely to be a question of scale. It may be easier for the mind to grasp the horror of open-pit projects with a “high risk for perpetual pollution” due to acid mine drainage, but acid mine drainage is also one risk of the sulfide mining projects about to be staged in and around the watershed of one of the world’s largest freshwater lakes — Lake Superior. Again, the report singles out the Pebble Mine in Alaska, another Rio Tinto project, to talk about the threat that mine poses to “the nation’s largest wild salmon fishery”; but the new mining in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula threatens the natural habitat of the coaster brook trout, the Salmon Trout River in northern Marquette County. So there are a couple of ways to make connections between the mining around Lake Superior and Polluting the Future.

Then there are the policy recommendations in this report — which range from enforcement of the Clean Water Act to other legislative and regulatory changes to hold companies accountable. Those all deserve careful consideration. What’s missing for me is something that came out of another report issued last week, this one by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. At the end of a ten day mission to assess the state of business and human rights in the United States, the UN delegation “noted the allegations of significant human rights impacts of surface mining, particularly the rights to health and water, and the deep divisions between stakeholders on the most effective ways of assessing and addressing the impacts.” (Significantly, for those who have followed the controversy over the Eagle Mine project, the UN team also looked at “the rights of Native Americans, particularly as regards the lack of free, prior and informed consent for projects affecting them and sites of cultural and religious significance to them.”)

So I would like to talk about the Earthworks report in this human rights context. The discussion might start with the very first sentence of the report, which characterizes water as “a scarce and precious asset.” The word “asset” makes me a little uneasy (but I would have to defer on this to people like Jeremy J. Schmidt, who together with Dan Shrubsole just put out a paper on the ethics and the politics entailed in the words we use about water). Think, for a moment, about how this discussion of perpetual pollution for immediate profit might be reframed as a human rights discussion. Or at least how the two perspectives — the environmental perspective and the human rights perspective — are complementary, and more powerful when taken together. The problem isn’t just that freshwater is a precious asset in increasingly high demand and short supply; it’s that when we permit big mining projects to pollute our water for generations to come, we are also failing to protect the human rights of our children and our children’s children, and so on, in perpetuity.