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April 23, 2013

Water Rights Advocate Wages Campaign Challenging Corporate Abuse

With one in nine people lacking access to clean, safe drinking water—one in nine—we face a global water crisis. This number would continue to grow were it not for the efforts of water rights champions like Shayda Naficy. She and her colleagues at Corporate Accountability International are organizing quickly and effectively “to keep our most essential resource in the hands of the people”; or, in other words, to advance a commons-based form of governance that would help make water available to all.

Corporate Accountability International, a grassroots corporate watchdog organization, has protected human rights, public health, and the environment for more than thirty-five years by “waging and winning campaigns challenging the abuses of some of the world’s most powerful corporations.” Naficy directs the organization’s international Challenge Corporate Control of Water campaign, which is clearing the way for governments to invest in public water.

Naficy, like so many of us, believes that we must all rise up together to change the way we think about resources that belong to all of us, such as water. And today “millions are calling for public officials to shut the spigot to water profiteers.”

I recently had the chance to catch up with Naficy about how the commons connects to her work in challenging corporate control of water and the importance of the commons in her own life.

— Jessica Conrad

Can you describe your role at Corporate Accountability International?

I started at Corporate Accountability International in January 2011, and I’m now the director of our international water campaign. My role is to advance our two main priorities: to convince the World Bank to stop promoting water privatization, and to advance the human right to water, especially at the international level.

How does the commons influence your work on the Challenge Corporate Control of Water campaign?

The commons is fundamental to our work on the international water campaign. We want water to be governed as a commons and an ecological trust. So the commons framework helps us orient toward the future we want to create.

As a practical approach, the commons also plays a huge role in my work as an organizer. Corporate Accountability International is a grassroots organization founded on the belief that we need to empower and organize people to reclaim a role in the governance of society. We want to create a political culture that reflects the need for grassroots action and involvement in public processes. And we want government to reflect the public interest, not the partisan and powerful economic interests of transnational corporations. We use the commons approach in our organizing efforts to meet these goals.

I also believe the work I do every day, beyond the water campaign, involves working toward a life that reflects the social and environmental values inherent in the commons. I think of the commons as the underpinning framework for everything I do.

Your campaign has so many facets. What has been your most successful strategy for making more people aware of our water commons?

I think our most successful strategy has been grassroots organizing. For example, our two major U.S. water campaigns, Think Outside the Bottle and Public Water Works!, have shifted the public climate around bottled water. Our work made it clear that bottled water is a wasteful form of water privatization that is dependent on misleading marketing practices.

You’ve probably noticed in your own life how much your friends’ perception and consumption pattern of bottled water has changed. I remember when bottled water hardly existed at all—and then I remember the big shift when everyone turned to bottled water because they mistrusted public water, thanks to the misleading marketing by the bottled-water industry. Over time, my friend groups slowly came around, and now it’s almost a faux pas to buy bottled water. That’s because people have come to understand that bottled water isn’t safer than public water. They understand that bottled water is actually dependent on public water. People also know that water bottling is a very wasteful form of privatization that has big environmental consequences.

This change occurred because of Corporate Accountability International’s public education campaign and the widespread media coverage it garnered. Our national campaign continues to engage activists, students on campuses, and Corporate Accountability International members to expose the truth behind the bottled-water industry’s marketing and bolster support for the tap.

What do you see as the biggest obstacle to creating a commons-based society right now?

My first instinct is to say that our biggest obstacle is the dominant paradigm, which values commodities and wealth creation, in a monetary sense, above everything else. The idea that accruing monetary wealth is the only way to satisfy our needs has blinded us to other forms of wealth and richness in our lives, such as our connection to community. These things are important for survival at an emotional and spiritual level, and also have implications for the value we attach to ecological integrity. This dominant paradigm also translates into an impoverished idea about the principles and processes of governance.

But that would be to describe the state we’re in, without describing the causes for being there. I don’t want to point to just one cause, when the problem is multi-faceted, but I think our political and public discourses are both dominated by the pursuit of profit. And I don’t think it would be too reductive to say that I’m working to address that problem, at least in part, through my work at Corporate Accountability International by highlighting how transnational corporations, in particular, are changing the way we think about our relationships, the environment, happiness, and the role of government through misleading marketing.

What is the greatest opportunity to strengthen and expand the commons right now?

I think our greatest opportunity is to work in a coordinated fashion at the grassroots level to make change person-to-person. Campaigns like the one I’m working on play a role in bridging the local to the global, but as a people we must rise up together to change our culture and our politics.

That said, I don’t think there’s a silver bullet. There are lots and lots of different opportunities, from DIY activities at the community level to international campaigns and everything in between. Every opportunity provides a different role for us to play, but I think they are all important.

What are a few of the most beloved commons in your life and community?

The first commons that comes to mind is the wilds of Montana. I’ve been going to Montana since I was a kid, and it was in Montana that I learned to appreciate public spaces that are available to everyone. My family lived off my mom’s teacher salary, and I think Montana’s park system was both a gift we could count on, and a lesson in what the commons is and why it’s so important in a country where so much land is privatized.

But that answer doesn’t include so many other commons, including the community of people commons. Whether it’s the people in my neighborhood in Jamaica Plains, Massachusetts or the international network of activists I belong to, these networks are very important to me.

Why do you call yourself a commoner?

The term presents some linguistic difficulty because it isn’t commonly understood. I hadn’t called myself a commoner before becoming familiar with On the Commons. But I do consider myself a commoner in the way you mean it. I think all of us who care about the public good are commoners, whether we know it or not.

This interview has been edited and adapted for OntheCommons.org.