Do local communities really have a meaningful role to play on environmental problems when multinational corporations and federal regulators seem to be so much more consequential? This question has always gnawed at me. It was a real delight, therefore, for me to learn about a fascinating new idea for empowering communities to take action: the “community ecosystem trust.”
The whole idea is to get beyond centralized rule-making and devolve real power to communities to manage natural resources effectively — and in ways that the community “owns.” A key problem with current environmental regulation is the interminable litigation and political stalemates that prevent meaningful solutions. In a polarized environment, nominal legal victories may be sabotaged by poor implementation or enforcement.
A community ecosystem trust is a classic commons approach. It gets all local stakeholders in an environmental dispute to sit down together and work out more sustainable long-term solutions that meet performance standards. Instead of accepting lowest-common-denominator goals, the process helps build trust and propel more flexible, maximum-achievable goals.
The idea is the brainchild of Dr. Michael M’Gonigle, a co-founder of Greenpeace International and now the head of POLIS, the Project on Ecological Governance, at the University of Victoria, British Columbia. Check out the POLIS report, “When There’s a Way, There’s a Will” — executive summary or full report.
Although some aspects of the model are based on circumstances peculiar to Canada, the ecosystem trust seems like a sturdy, versatile vehicle for providing real local responsibility and control. The freshness of the idea reminded me of Brian Donahue’s 1999 book, Reclaiming the Commons: Community Farms and Forests in a New England Town (Yale U. Press), which tells how the town of Weston, Mass. re-invented commons management of its forests and farms.