Taking Back the Commons

By Myers, Owen | Alternatives Journal, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

Taking Back the Commons


Myers, Owen, Alternatives Journal


A grassroots movement in Newfoundland halts river privatization plans

The people of Newfoundland and Labrador enjoy one of the longest-standing traditions of equal access to common property in North America. It is a vital part of the culture of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Whether it is cutting firewood, berry picking, hunting rabbits, moose and birds, or fishing for salmon and trout, the freedom to "go in the country" is a cornerstone in the life of both rural and urban dwellers. The wilderness is never far away in Newfoundland, with a population of only 500,000 and private ownership of only 4.4 percent of the province's land mass.

A long tradition of access to the commons is, however, no certain protection against pressures to privatize.

In 1990 the provincial government began implementing a new approach to renewable common property resources. Government-commissioned consultants proposed a major expansion of economic development based on the hunting and fishing sector of the tourism industry.

Sections of salmon rivers and even whole rivers would be privatized via leasing arrangements with commercial interests. Under the guise of "community watershed management," local residents would have limited access to areas with inferior salmon holding pools.

Such a scheme is the norm throughout the whole range of the Atlantic salmon from Scandinavia, Scotland, Ireland and Iceland to the province of New Brunswick in Canada. Newfoundlanders are nearly alone in retaining common access to salmon rivers, a privilege that has been lost in other countries and provinces where monied interests own the angling rights and access to rivers.

The Clyde Wells government adopted a cautious approach to the consultants' recommendations, but in 1995 the new administration of Premier Brian Tobin, a former federal minister of fisheries, endorsed the report.

The province intended to use the Lands Act to create "Special Management Areas." Each area, typically covering thousands of square kilometres, would be under the authority of a nonprofit "Community Watershed Management Corporation," which would administer the area as if it were a form of rural government.

The province made no provision for the public accountability of the new corporations. Unlike hospital boards, the corporations were created under the Companies Act as conventional private entities, even though they received government funds and personnel support and were treated as organizations that could manage a watershed. In three cases, the province signed memoranda of understanding, giving the corporations watershed management authority.

Critics feared the watershed management corporations would be vehicles for outfitters who wanted to own salmon pools and exclude local residents in favour of their paying guests, since the simplest way to fund the corporation when government funding dried up would be by leasing sections of the rivers under the corporation's control.

A number of position papers by consultants paid for by government promoted the leasing concept. The most exhaustive of these, the LGL Report, was adopted by the Tobin Liberals in their January 1996 Redbook of policy positions.

Government literature emphasized that the "Community Watershed Management" corporations represented a grassroots initiative that would improve conservation of the salmon stocks and provide users with direct input into the management of watersheds. Critics, however, saw no effective mechanism for influencing the decision making of the management corporations.

The documents also made prominent use of terms such as "ecosystem approach." The principal aims, however, appeared to be revenue generation and downloading of government responsibility.

A first step toward revenue-based access restriction began on the Gander, one of the great rivers in Newfoundland. Beginning in June 1997, a special individual river licence costing $20 was necessary to fish for salmon on the Gander. …

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