The Commons

Building a Commons Across the Gulf

The recent BP oil spill was a huge disaster, yet the Gulf of Mexico
has long been an abused ecosystem. For decades, the Mississippi
River has drained pollutants into the Gulf from nitrogen rich cornfields,
chemically-treated golf courses, oil-polluted parking lots and
sewage runoff. The Gulf is home to a huge and aging oil/chemicals
infrastructure, including nearly 4,000 drilling and production platforms.
Critical habitat for shrimp and fish is jammed together with
heavy industry. Believing they need both industry and habitat, the
loyalties of the local people are often conflicted: their voices often
silenced. To re-energize them, new ideas are needed.

Could these ideas come from a commons-focused engagement
process to protect and expand the prosperity of both ecosystems
and people in the Gulf? This question forms the starting point for
a new dialog about the commons, organized by Global Commons
Trust, a non-profit organization leading a coalition called Commons
Action for the United Nations. Using the power of film to galvanize
and focus action, they have partnered with filmmakers at This coalition is seeking to help co-coordinate and
film the participation of commoners along the entire gulf coast
bioregion, including five states in the US, five states in Mexico, and

In August, our team traveled for nine days across the northeastern
Gulf Coast region in the U.S. During the filming, we heard many
points of view, from shrimpers and fishermen, researchers, ship
captains, tribal leaders, scientists and engaged citizens. Though tired
and mistrustful of previous efforts, especially since Hurricane
Katrina, many seemed hungry for new ideas.

In a series of moving interviews, we heard the strong sense that people
know the right things to do, but feel they are not being listened
to, nor empowered, to make decisions for the management and
preservation of their shared resources. Again and again, our subjects
described the same thing: how they are working to restore access
and rights to their traditional commons, despite strong
resistance from governments and businesses.

The Gulf commons project is an attempt to re-empower citizens with
knowledge of their natural rights to manage their own resources. The engagement process envisions facilitating cross-scale and crossborder
collaboration among gulf coast citizens as social chartered
organizations, regaining their natural sovereignty as a counterbalance
to the huge power of government and the private sector.

Filming will continue as the dialog grows throughout the Gulf. An
introductory commons short film will be produced this autumn,
followed by a feature-length documentary.

For more information on social chartered organizations, commons
trusts, and commons rights  please see

This article was originally published, with accompanying photographs by Kevin Hansen, in the Fall | Winter 2010 issue of Kosmos Journal. It can be downloaded as a PDF here.