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Michael M'Gonigle

WHERE THERE'S A WAY by Michael M'Gonigle
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2001 issue of Yes Magazine.

They stood beside the river, lining the bank. For hour after hour, day after day, they searched for the little fish they call “Greasie.” But still, it did not return. The annual arrival of the eulachon was always a big event for the Nuxalk people of the Bella Coola Valley on British Columbia’s mid-coast. A nutritious source of oil to relish on dried salmon and other delectables, it was long a valued good for trading. The candlefish is still today a dietary staple and a prized gift at the potlatch.

But in 1999, the candlefish run didn’t show up. The culprit, or culprits, is hard to pinpoint in this age of global warming, of El Niños and La Niñas, of clearcuts and predatory ocean trawling. In this case, many point their fingers at the shrimp trawler that operates off the coast, a trawler that doesn’t want to stop fishing when the candlefish pass through. What was once a thriving cultural practice and productive fishery is quickly being extinguished as mere waste of the industrial machine.

This example is not isolated. Along the coast, the salmon haven’t shown up in stream after stream. In some places, like the Owekeeno River, the run has fallen from millions to hundreds in just a few years. And, of course, everywhere along the British Columbia coast, old-growth forest ecosystems that were highly productive less than a decade ago are now in catastrophic decline.

New commons to protect old commons

Declining fish populations and forest ecosystems are a direct by-product of centuries of economic and political colonization. Whether it is in the form of state colonialism, private corporatism, or bureaucratic regulation, centralized power has undermined, and everywhere continues to undermine, territorial sustainability. Local authority is lost to distant powers, rural resources are extracted to fuel urban growth, and community customs, vitality, and health are eroded.

The most recent incarnation of this process is globalization. The World Trade Organization, NAFTA and others are creating a pervasive set of rules — essentially a new global constitution — to enshrine centralism as the law, preempting all others. These global institutions are usurping what had been local and national authority in the interest of facilitating the access of global corporations to our resources and markets. Our governments no longer seek to meet the needs of their own peoples and territories; instead, they increasingly seek to enforce the rules of an unsustainable global elite.

This shift of power sets the stage for today’s historical struggle for a different “constitution,” one that can reinvent the state from the bottom up. In British Columbia, native people have for years been demanding greater control over their lands. Now, too, non-native coastal communities have joined the fray, demanding new local management powers (and financial support) to try to bring their ecosystems and economies back to health.

Communities in almost every corner of the globe are taking similar initiatives as part of a “community-based movement” among forest users in Nepal, fishers in Alaska, grazing co-operatives in Switzerland, and others. A pivotal tool in this effort is the new commons.

A lesson in the future

Off the west coast of Vancouver Island, several hundred miles south of the Nuxalk, the devastation of local fish populations and the decline of the forest industry has prompted local action. From high profile areas such as Clayoquot Sound to little-known logging towns such as Port Alberni, residents of all kinds — First Nations, loggers, fishers, local government officials, environmentalists — have banded together to create “Regional Aquatic Management Systems.” These regional bodies manage the local aquatic ecosystem cooperatively — to the extent they can, given the limited scope available to them — and negotiate with all levels of government, especially the federal government, to increase their power locally.

Similar organizations are popping up throughout the province to allocate licenses, develop stewardship projects, establish protected areas, and mediate disputes.

The goal for these groups is to create places where communities can devise new, comprehensive approaches to using the land and sea, to making decisions, to owning and developing businesses, to working with governments and corporations. One of these groups has just negotiated a new power-sharing arrangement with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

These groups are an important first step in a long process, but they are far from achieving real authority or autonomy from federal control. They have undertaken specific habitat restoration projects and lobbied for greater authority. But they have little real power. Even the new agreement with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans is very limited, as the minister of fisheries retains the last word.

These initiatives point to the need for a process by which such models can be strengthened, where precedents can be established that others might later build on. Arguing about who has what rights to the land and resources is not productive. Instead, what sustainability requires is a common commitment to creating places where we can experiment on the ground, comprehensively, in the search for what might work.

The community ecosystem trust

One vehicle for doing this is the “community ecosystem trust.” In such a trust, those with a claim to land create a legal instrument to ensure that whoever uses and manages the land does so in a way aimed at ecological and economic health — in perpetuity. The community can do this however members choose, as long as they meet the goals. The trust is a perfect vehicle because it is so explicitly value-based, and so comprehensive.

For the Nuxalk in Bella Coola and the activists in Clayoquot Sound, no mechanism now exists to bring about such a comprehensive change. But there are hints from the successes of other communities around the world of how we might do this.

In Nepal, for example, thousands of legally recognized “forest user groups” collectively manage economic activities to sustain both the forest and the community. These efforts, for the most part, are limited to more marginal lands and restricted by government policies. Nonetheless, they have increased the sustainability of the forests and increased returns to the communities. Recently, a national federation of these groups was established to mediate between these groups and the national government to get ever greater support and authority for these groups.

Drawing on this and many other experiments in Asia, Africa, and the Americas, we at the International Network of Forests and Communities have developed a process for the British Columbia provincial government to develop such experimentation on an ongoing basis. The will already exists in many communities — but there is no way.

Here’s how it would work. A province-wide “ecosystem trust charter” would set the general terms under which any local trust would operate. An independent working group would assist communities that want to create ecosystem trusts and advocate for a shift in authority over local resource management from federal and provincial government to the local trusts.

If such a process existed, the Nuxalk would have a way to move toward the restoration of the health of the candlefish and the Bella Coola Valley. Native and non-native fishers, tourist operators, and local forestry operations would have a reason to talk. After all, if something could be worked out among members of the community, they could act — and the government would be required to support them. And what could be the objection to this empowerment of local communities if ecosystem sustainability and community health terms are set out in the provincial trust charter, thus ensuring that local action protected the “public interest”?

So residents of the Bella Coola Valley could designate the boundaries of a watershed area that would become the community ecosystem trust. A community trust authority could set comprehensive plans for the management of the trust area, establishing new performance criteria and “best practices” that would apply to all who live and work in the area. These would apply to shrimp trawlers whose harvesting impacts the eulachon and forest companies cutting in the watershed.

This structure would support economic innovation that can work within trust conditions, so the need for continuing agency regulation would decrease as sustainability became embedded directly in economic practice — the essence of the commons.

Among the new roles for government would be to help this happen with community loan funds, technical assistance, marketing networks, and so on. (Forestry and fishery products from these areas would be ripe for eco-certification, for example.)

And, above all, the precedent would be set.

Building on the successes of one place, more communities could sign on. Over time, a whole new jurisdictional level would emerge, a jurisdiction rooted in trusts that themselves embody the principles of the commons. Adapted to local experiences but coordinated to work together, this idea offers a potential to recast democracy, and to do so in a gradual, cooperative fashion.

Facilitated transition

Today, governments that are secretly negotiating away their powers at the WTO and the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) have lost any claim to ecological legitimacy. To regain ecological legitimacy, governments must support initiatives that are already occurring on the ground. In response to globalization’s top-down agenda of economic “structural adjustment,” we can create models of local initiatives across the planet that are community-driven, bottom-up examples of ecological structural adjustment.

The community ecosystem trust is one way to do this. It moves beyond tinkering with sustainable practices through market mechanisms and more agency rules to comprehensive change by developing whole sustainability one place at a time.

Communities can adopt the trust charter when the time is right and adapt it to the local landscape. Then gradually, place by place, the commons will once again be held by the communities that live with them every day, protected and kept in trust for future generations.

When there is a way, there is already a will.