By Brian McKenna
Columbus Free Press

If water is the oil of the 21st century, then Michigan, smack dab in the middle of the Great Lakes, is Saudi Arabia. And after banging their straws at the Big Dipper for years, Nestle Corporation has finally succeeded in plunging into the liquid gold.

On February 28th Michigan Governor Granholm signed a bill that will, for the first time, permit a multinational corporation to scoop up given amounts of the Great Lakes and sell bottled water across the world. For the first time in history the concept of the Great Lakes as a commons for all to enjoy has been breached. And NAFTA, as we’ll see, might insure a run on the Great Lakes.

The new Michigan law allows Nestle Corporation to continue its five-year takings of up to 250,000 gallons per day and sell them at a markup well over 240 times its production cost. Nestle’s profit from drawing this water could be from $500,000 to $1.8 million per day. A key proviso is that the bottles can be no larger than 5.7 gallons apiece.
Nestle had been ferociously fighting in court to prevent Granholm from exercising her veto power against diversion, but with her acquiescence to the 250,000 limit, Nestle dropped its suit.

The irony is that most mainstream environmentalists compromised with Nestle and the Governor. James Clift the policy director of the Michigan Environmental Council (MEC), a coalition of about 70 environmental organizations, called the new law, “a huge step forward for Michigan.” Not so says Dave Dempsey, the former Policy Director of MEC. “I think Nestle is dancing in the streets.” Dempsey is author of “On the Brink, The Great Lakes in the 21st Century.”

Largest gathering of Great Lakes Tribes since 1764

First Nations people are at the forefront in mounting challenges to Nestle and the nation state sovereigns along several fronts. Frank Ettawageshik is Chair of the Little Traverse Bay tribe of Indians. In February, 2002 the tribe filed suit against Nestle and Governor Engler in federal court contending the Ice Mountain project violated the 1986 Water Resources Development Act which protected water as a public trust. It was later dismissed in June 2002, the judge claiming the tribes had no right to sue.

Ettawageshik fought on, telling audiences he feared, “soon there will be bus tours of the sunken ships of the Great Lakes,” if this goes forward. He calls the Lakes, “the white pine of the 21st century,” referencing the logging assault which felled most of Michigan’s forests in the nineteenth century.

Angry that the U.S. and Canadian governments disrespected the tribes in its 2001 Great Lakes Charter, where tribes were treated as “stakeholders” not sovereign nations, Ettawageshik deliberated with other tribes about a response. After a while he joined John Beaucage, Grand Council Chief of the Union of Ontario Indians to form a coalition of more than 140 tribes to sign the historic Tribal and First Nations Great Lakes Water Accord.

The organization is called the United Indian Nations of he Great Lakes (UINGL) and it was officially launched in April 2005 in Niagara Falls, Ontario. The location is historically significant. It was the largest gathering of Great Lakes native leaders since the Treaty of Niagara in 1764. That Treaty grew out of he Royal Proclamation of 1763 which provided all land west of the Ottawa River as Indian land.

Ettawageshik was influenced by the Water Walkers of the Great Lakes. In 2003 Indian women began journeys around the Great Lakes carrying a copper bucket full of water. They want to recall the traditional Anishnabe role of women as protectors of water, what they call the lifeblood of Mother Earth. So far they have completed treks around Lakes Superior, Michigan and Huron. They begin their walk around Lake Ontario on April 29, departing from Niagara.
“We’re not stakeholders but bonafide owners,” Bob Goulais, a spokesperson for the Union of Ontario Indians, told me. “The Great Lakes are not for sale.”

Countering ‘Neoliberalism’

Tribes represent a counterculture to neoliberalism, putting forth a public politics that underscores a collective responsibility to resist capital encroachments.

Michigan Governor Granholm herself called the tribes “Michigan’s original environmentalists,” when she signed an Intergovernmental Accord with them in May 2004. But she didn’t listen closely enough when the tribes told her that “Preserving the environmental quality and quantity of Great Lakes water resources for the present and for the next seven generations is absolutely essential to the Tribes.”

Indians are at the forefront of establishing an anti-corporate discourse and movement. They were at the fore in Bolivia against Bechtel, on the march against multinationals in Mexico City, and are now are at the lead in the Great Lakes. But mainstream environmentalists typically resemble the nation’s Democrats willing to accommodate and concede, rather than stand their ground.