By design, most grassroots environmental groups tend to focus on issues and concerns local to their communities. One of the functions of the Great Lakes Aquatic Habitat Network is to provide local groups around the basin with a means of contacting each other for empowerment and support.
Occasionally, though, we get a chance to expand our network and see just how far-reaching the grassroots movement is around the world. In Illinois, the Lake Michigan Federation has been fortunate to be part of an exchange of groups between Japan and the Great Lakes basin. This past March, two staff members from the Federation joined six other Great Lakes grassroots representatives for an opportunity to examine how communities have organized around large lake resources in Shiga prefecture, Japan.
Shiga is home to Japan’s enormous freshwater treasure, Lake Biwa.While not nearly the size of the Great Lakes,many of the problems Lake Biwa faces find close parallels within our own backyards. Over 14 million people rely on the lake for their drinking water. Similar to the southern basin of Lake Michigan, industry has found a home on the shores of Lake Biwa due to the easy availability of fresh cooling water. Natural shorelines have been degraded due to development and surging population growth, and most streams that flow into the lake have been channelized in the name of flood control and agriculture. A visit to a local aquarium provided us with a picture of a “least wanted” list of fish that have invaded Lake Biwa. Among them: Illinois’ popular smallmouth bass.
Like the Great Lakes, a wide variety of citizen groups have sprung up around Lake Biwa. Each group has dedicated itself to exploring some facet of ecological degradation within the basin and determining how individual participants can effect positive change within their communities. Some groups, like the Friends of Lake Biwa, have chosen an outspoken advocacy approach to ecological protection due to concerns that the outside world is not seeing an accurate portrayal of Lake Biwa’s environmental problems. On the other hand, the Tenjin River Watershed Environment Conservation Association has chosen to focus its efforts on volunteer activities designed to restore specific species to a stretch of river running near their homes. Regardless of the scale of their efforts, each group we encountered represented a clear commonality: citizen participation and influence on local government.
In June 2003, several of the Japanese groups sent representatives to Chicago for the International Association for Great Lakes Research / International Lake Environment Committee conference. The Illinois Hub network was able to return the favor of hospitality shown to them in Japan by arranging meetings for the Japanese representatives with several non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that exemplify citizen participation in local government. For example, to illustrate how citizen participants can help recover biodiversity in an urban setting, we toured prime Chicago lakefront bird habitat courtesy of the Bird Conservation Network. For insight into how community residents can effectively deal with industrial pollution in their neighborhoods, we spoke with members of Chicago’s Southeast Environmental Task Force.
While the day-to-day activities of Great Lakes grassroots groups and GLAHNF Hubs are directed by local events, it is heartening to experience the show of international support for grassroots efforts exemplified by this exchange process. The expansion of our network beyond the Great Lakes Basin has provided lessons that each participant has brought back to their “home turf” to continue the upswell of support for community-based environmental efforts.