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Putting Rights of Nature on the Table

Shaded under a tent from the early morning sun, I joined a discussion on Mother Earth rights at the Dialogo Climatico (Espacio) alternative space. The discussion was led by Ben Powless of the Indigenous Environmental Network, our Water Campaigner Emma Lui, Natalia Greene of Fundacion Pachamama and Shannon Biggs of the Global Exchange.

The presentations were engaging and followed by thoughtful questions and a rich discussion.

Ben spoke to the history recognizing the interconnectedness of people and nature and the concept of ‘living well' in indigenous cultures. He shared that the indigenous peoples he is working with have been engaging in the UNCCC process for 10 years, recognizing that indigenous peoples worldwide are often disproportionately affected by climate change (proximity to emitters, in relation to hunting, fishing, and much more) as well as must vulnerable to false mitigation and adaptation policies addressing the crisis we face.

Here Ben spoke about the many false solutions that are being proposed under the UNCCC process including allowing countries to meet emission reduction commitments through offsets such as the push to incorporate market mechanisms under REDD (Reducing emissions and deforestation in developing countries) which threaten (depending on the progress of negotiations) to bring about land grabs, replace real forest with plantations and give emitters in the Global North a loophole in making needed emission cuts.

On the rights of nature, Ben argued that solutions to the climate crisis must adopt this framework which was elevated at the influential Cochabamba conference. We must bring forward the alliances that were present in Cochabamba between indigenous peoples, social movements, NGOs and even some governments, to advance climate justice.

Emma did an excellent job at framing the critical reasons of supporting a Universal Declaration on the Rights of Mother Earth and the process by which this important document is moving forward. The declaration adopted by 35,000 people at last April's Cochabamba conference recognizes mother earth, or nature, as a living being. People have the right to life as do ecosystems.

The declaration recognizes the right to be free from pollution and calls for economies that function in harmony, not tension, with nature. Emma, like Ben, affirmed that this is not a new idea, it is consistent with indigenous beliefs and scientific understanding of ecological systems. The declaration calls for recognizing how consumption and production patterns harm nature; a global commons.

The declaration, if ratified, will allow cases to be brought forward in defence of the rights of nature. If ratified into national laws, it will provide a new method to hold those who violate rights of nature legally accountable.

Emma highlighted that on April 22, Mother Earth day, there will be an important UN dialogue on the Declaration in preparation for the UN Conference on Sustainable Development - we will be monitoring this closely and mobilizing.

Natalia spoke about her work in supporting the integration of the rights of nature in Ecuador's constitution. Ecuador is one of the biodiverse countries in the world. Natalia argued that nature has been treated as a slave, an object to be traded and exploited. Recognizing the rights of nature helps to transform our relationship with nature as an object, to a subject. Recognizing these rights does not mean they absorb or are used to contradict, individual or collective human rights or indigenous rights, rather as a parallel track. There are processes and precedents under rights law to address where rights interconnect and conflict.

Natalia spoke about having discussions with lawyers, government representatives and civil society in the lead up to the debate which brought about the change to their constitution (93 out of 133 votes in support). After all, if corporations have rights, nature certainly should have recognized rights.

Finally, she spoke to the idea of bringing people together for a global minga (dialogue) on the rights to nature and the Global Alliance that has been struck to move forward the recognition of nature's rights.

Shannon described starting to research the topic of rights of nature around 10 years ago; there has been a lot of movement between then and now. In the U.S., change is beginning at the local level and the rights of nature are bringing people together across political and economic divides - no one wants to live beside a toxic dump.

In her work with Global Exchange, Shannon described how she came to understand how the law itself is a barrier to protecting people and ecosystems from environmental destruction; how laws treat nature as property, and allows corporations to use law as a club to force onto communities projects and environmental consequences that aren't welcomed. The law protects corporations and undermines people's ability to say no. Nature is considered property under law. In this context, the most that can be done is to beg and plead for better regulations, but since industry has a significant role in writing the law in the first place, our successes are too few. It is not enough to appreciate and understand a culture of living well when our laws are designed to drive forward market based solutions.

So what can we do? Change the law, and this is preciously what is happening in communities across the U.S. For example, in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania - one of the most damaged cities in the U.S. - City Council recently passed a law to ban fracking and natural gas drilling. The law subordinates corporations to community will and the rights of nature. Mount Shasta, where a corporation wants to ‘cloud seed' (a process where rained is purposely created to use for hydropower), is set to pass an ordinance that will help to prevent this process. When passed, if the chemicals used is found in water, fauna and flora, community members can go to court on behalf of nature. The money that is won doesn't go to owners of property, it goes to the restoration of the ecosystem. This can have both preventative and punitive effects. There are a number of other communities that are currently considering legislation that will help create this paradigm shift to recognize the rights of nature.

It is in redefining the problem of how to address environmental impacts by recognizing nature as a being with rights that is providing the space to create the type of communities we want to live in.

Andrea Harden-Donahue, Energy and Climate Justice Campaigner, Council of Canadians


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