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Wetlands as a Commons

In recent years, some very important work has been done to create a renewed awareness of an ancient concept known as "the Commons." The atmosphere and oceans, languages and culture, the stores of human knowledge and wisdom, the informal support systems of community, the peace and quiet we crave, the generic building blocks of life ­ these are all aspects of the Commons. 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.

Noted Canadian environmentalist Richard Bocking states that the Commons are those things to which we have rights just by being a member of the human family. 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. The Commons is the vast realm that lies outside of both the economic market and the institutional state, and that all of us typically use without toll or price.

The atmosphere and oceans, languages and culture, the stores of human knowledge and wisdom, the informal support systems of community, the peace and quiet we crave, the air we breathe, the freshwater we drink, the seas, forests, and mountains, the genetic heritage through which all life is transmitted, the diversity of life itself. ­ these are all aspects of the commons. Commons is synonymous with community, cooperation and respect for the rights and preferences of others,. Some Commons, such as the atmosphere, outer space and the oceans, may be thought of as global, while others, such as public spaces, common land, forests, the gene pool, and local medicines, are community Commons. The commons have the quality of always having been there. One generation after another, available to all.

Okanagan Wetlands Regeneration Alliance
Okanagan Wetlands Regeneration Alliance Where are Your Stories?

From If This Is Your Land, Where Are Your Stories? by J. Edward Chamberlin

It happened at a meeting between an Indian community in northwest British Columbia and some government officials. The officials claimed the land for the government. The natives were astonished by the claim. They couldn't understand what these relative newcomers were talking about. Finally one of the elders put what was bothering them in the form of a question. "If this is your land," he asked, "where are your stories?" He spoke in English, but then he moved into Gitksan, the Tsimshian language of his people ­ and told a story.

All of a sudden everyone understood ... even though the government foresters didn't know a word of Gitksan, and neither did some of his Gitksan companions. But what they understood was more important: how stories give meaning and value to the places we call home; how they bring us close to the world we livein by taking us into a world of words; how they hold us together and at the same time keep us apart.

As Maude Barlow of the Council of Canadians states, "To truly share water sources in an equitable and responsible way, we must recognize water as a shared common heritage to be fiercely protected, carefully managed, and equitably shared. 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. Freshwater is central to our very existence and must be protected by public trust law for the common good, not for individual profit. Of course there is an economic dimension to water, but under the public trust, governments are obliged to protect water sources in order to sustain them for the long-term use of the entire population, not just the privileged few."

As professor Richard Wagner of UBCO states, "In effect, whoever controls the ways in which water is commoditized and marketed has a much larger say in managing our future than the rest of Okanagan society. Corporate marketing of Okanagan water, as agricultural resource, as lakeview, as playground, perpetuates a settler culture committed to continued ecological degradation, not sustainability. The commons governance approach of the Syilx, the indigenous peoples of the Okanagan, was overwritten by colonial and provincial governments beginning in the late nineteenth century. But then, following a subsequent period of corporate irrigation management which ended during World War I, a new form of commons management was instituted ­ that of the farmer-operated 'irrigation district'. Many irrigation districts continue to operate in the Okanagan today though they generally provide more water now to non-agricultural, domestic customers than to agriculturists. Out of five water purveyors in the greater Kelowna area, for instance, three are irrigation districts. By contrast, in Penticton, Naramata and Summerland, the local irrigation districts have folded, handing their authority and water licenses over to either the local municipality or regional district. These handovers have been motivated mainly by concerns over water quality but they have been coerced, quite deliberately, by provincial government policy which prohibits the granting of water quality improvement grants to irrigation districts. The impetus today is towards a further, no less radical transformation of an agricultural society into a resort community with a valley wide population predicted to reach half a million by the middle of this century. The question I would like to pose to political leaders at all levels, as well as to local residents and water managers, is: whose interests are being served by this radical transformation? Is it perhaps time to rethink and dispense with policy developed during the colonial era and begin to develop policy to serve the interests of today?"

The market is like a runaway engine, with no governor to tell it when to stop depleting the Commons that sustains us all. What is needed is a "counter narrative" to the current narrative of individual ownership and control as the best way to manage resources. A new narrative, protected by a legal framework of its own, would allow us to manage our collective resources for the common good. This is not an esoteric concept. It is ever more clear that if we fail to create a new way of thinking about the planet and our role in it, we may not survive.

Rethinking Stewardship

Historically, the Okanagan had an abundance of wetlands. Due to the impacts of land use changes and pressures such as urban development, increased population, resource development and extraction, there are currently fewer wetlands remaining. To conserve and protect those that remain, regular and careful monitoring and planning practices will be required.

For a vast array of wildlife species as well as for people, wetlands provide critical places that are fundamental in sustaining life and ecological services. Wetlands are typically the biological reservoirs in grassland, forested and other landscapes, hosting and sustaining many of the country's natural assets such as plants, birds, insects and mammals. Just as important, they sustain the mainstay physical resources, such as water and soils. Wetlands are also important shared resources across multi-lateral jurisdictions. Mexico, Argentina, United States and Russia rely on us to care for and manage our wetlands, largely because of migratory species.

Stewardship practices, at the farm gate through to international levels, help to ensure that highly migratory and other species of common concern have the critical places required in their lifecycles. Borders favour the territorial behaviour of people but not the inherent behaviour of wildlife species and ecosystems.

For urban developers, farmers, and road construction people in the Okanagan, as examples, wetlands often have been seen as obstacles that needed to be drained, filled-in or built-around, and in some cases destroyed . But fortunately attitudes about, and interests in, our wetlands are changing. We need to continue the process, to ensure a stable and substantial stewardship process going forward.

Okanagan Wetlands Regeneration Alliance Okanagan Wetlands Regeneration Alliance Okanagan Wetlands Regeneration Alliance Okanagan Wetlands Regeneration Alliance Okanagan Wetlands Regeneration Alliance The
Okanagan Wetlands Regeneration Alliance

Okanagan Wetlands Regeneration Alliance is a group of progressive citizens, groups, companies, institutions, organizations and communities who want to put nature back into the centre of Okanagan life.

The Alliance was formed to apply the principals of ecology to the wetlands of the Okanagan Basin, which are the source and heart of the future of human habitation and economy of this area, and which are in continuous need of study, understanding and regeneration.

Please contact:
Robert MacDonald, Director
1473 Ethel Street
Kelowna BC V1Y 2X9
Telephone: 250.870.2690
Email: click here

The Partners in the Wetlands Alliance are
  • Okanagan Basin Water Board
  • District of Lake Country: James Baker, Mayor
  • Okanagan Greens: Angela Reid, President
  • Okanagan Institute: Robert MacDonald, Director
  • Okanagan College: Douglas MacLeod, Associate Dean, Science and Technology
  • Community Futures of the Central Okanagan: Larry Widmer, Director
  • Summerhill Organics and Wildcraft: Gabe Cipes, President
  • Okanagan Nation: Chad Eneas, En'owkin Centre
  • Okanagan Network for the Environment: Deb Thorneycroft, Coordinator
  • Aspire Media Works: Geoff Millar, President

    The Alliance welcomes participation from members of the public, as well as from companies, organizations and institutions of all kinds.
  • Okanagan Wetlands Regeneration Alliance
    Okanagan Wetlands Regeneration Alliance

    Published under a Creative Commons copyright. Created, designed and hosted by the Okanagan Institute.