Re-Visioning Our Relationship with the Earth: Lessons from ‘Rights of Nature and Systemic Change in Climate Solutions’

Deeply aware of the crisis created by systems that value growth and profit above all else, an extraordinary group of panelists gathered to speak out at ‘Rights of Nature and Systemic Change in Climate Solutions’ on September 22, 2014. The event, presented by the Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network (WECAN International) and the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature, was held as part of the mobilization surrounding the People’s Climate March and U.N. Climate Summit in New York City.

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Photo by Emily Arasim.

Rich with varied voices and perspectives, the event focused on the need to redesign our social, political, economic and legal structures to function with respect to the rights of the Earth and the knowledge systems of the original stewards of the land, the worlds indigenous peoples.

“If our environmental law and economic systems were working we would not be in this crisis,” explained Osprey Orielle Lake, Co-Founder and Executive Director of WECAN International, in her opening statement. “Our current laws do not stop pollution, they ‘regulate’ it and allow it to continue. We must disrupt this broken framework.”

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Photo by Emily Arasim.

Tom Goldtooth (Indigenous Environmental Network), Shannon Biggs (Global Exchange), Gloria Ushigua (Association of Sapara Women, Ecuador), Linda Sheehan (Earth Law Center), and Casey Camp-Horinek (Ponca Nation, Indigenous Environmental Network) joined Lake to expose fundamental flaws in our current laws and management schemes, while presenting bold strategies for re-visioning them. The issue could not be more critical, presenters explained, as a shift to a legal framework and knowledge system that sees the Earth as a living being with inherent right is a requirement for any genuine climate solution.

Tom Goldtooth of the Indigenous Environmental Network took the floor first, focusing on the need to learn from and re-align with indigenous knowledge which conceives of the Earth as a vibrant, living Mother who must be cared for and respected.

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Tom explained how many climate action plans currently being considered, such as REDD carbon projects and biotechnology schemes, continue to violate the laws of nature and rights of the Earth in attempts to divide, conquer, and profit, ultimately making them false and highly destructive proposals. He emphasized that communities across the globe must reject climate policies which continue to commodify and manipulate, instead coming back to “our true nature of working in harmony with Mother Earth.”

Linda Sheehan of the Earth Law Center spoke next, reaffirming and expanding up Tom Goldtooth’s sentiment that our plans of action, movements, laws and policies must function with respect to the Rights of Nature.

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According to Linda, our current legal structure overwhelmingly views the Earth as an entity to be traded and degraded, resulting in continued exploitation and failing policy. “We think we can chop up nature, we can control it. This is simply a misunderstanding,” she explained.

Working to challenge this flawed vision, Linda and allies at the Earth Law Center have joining forces with groups across the U.S. to create and instate new laws that put the rights of the Earth and communities above those of corporations, including notable successes in Santa Monica, California this year.

From the frontlines of the fight to end fossil fuel extraction in the Amazon Basin, Gloria Ushigua of the Association of Sapara Women, Ecuador shared her story next.

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“We are here to defend our rights, our spirits, our forests,” Gloria explained, highlighting the ways that indigenous communities across the world, embedded firmly in a tradition that sees the Earth as a flourishing and living being, are already challenging conventional models and leading the way towards climate solutions.

Gloria’s words however, shook up the conversation as she explained how despite Ecuadorian law that officially gives rights to Nature, massive corporate and political violations continue. Ultimately, changing our legal framework must thus be but the first step, to be followed up with ceaseless civil society action to insure that these rights are respected on every level.

Shannon Biggs of the Global Exchange spoke next, expanding upon Gloria’s declaration that systemic change in climate solutions and our relationship with the Earth must come not only at the policy level, but at the level of communities and individuals across the globe.

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“It all comes down to community, it is up to our communities to be stewards of the land,” Shannon explained, “we must challenge unjust law that says nature is property.”

Shannon continued on to detail the concrete ways that the Global Exchange and its partners are working to expand local ability to implement and enforce the Rights of Nature, focusing on community applications of these principles as tools for climate resiliency and the protection of the Earth.

Casey Camp-Horinek of the Ponca Nation and Indigenous Environmental Network took the floor as the final presenter of the day. Her speech was one of hope, explaining to the audience that while the task of uprooting and re-visioning the dominant system seem daunting, this is only so when constrained under the impression that politicians and economists are the center of ultimate power.

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“If the sun did not rise today, would you be here? If you did not have a drink of water, would you be here today? THAT is the true power,” Casey explained, the audience erupting in applause.

Following the series of presentations, audience members and speakers engaged in a question and answer session that kept many in discussion for more than an hour after the official end of the event. Expanding upon earlier discussion surrounding mal-aligned economic and climate policy that seeks to control and subdue nature, Linda Sheehan poignantly remarked, “they call it ecosystem management as is the earth has been unruly. No. We need to regulate ourselves.”

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All of the presenters are engaged with a dynamic process of conducting Rights of Nature Ethic Tribunals. The first was held in Ecuador earlier this year, followed by a October 5th  Tribunal in the San Francisco Bay Area (click here to read more!) and upcoming December 2014 Tribunal in Peru. Crucially, these Rights of Nature Tribunals demonstrate how a new legal framework, embedded in principles of the Rights of Nature, can be successfully used as a tool for ending corporate exploitation and building climate resiliency and solutions.

Reflecting on the afternoon panel and plans moving forward, Osprey Orielle Lake of WECAN International stated, “to truly live sustainably and live in harmony with the Earth, we need to change the very DNA of our economy and legal frameworks to adhere to the natural laws of the earth and for this, Rights of Nature can play a central role. Please join our efforts at WECAN and in the growing movement for the Rights of Nature.”

For more information about the Rights of Nature movement, check out:

wecaninternational.org/pages/rights-of-nature-international-advocacy-trainings

therightsofnature.org

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Blog by Emily Arasim, WECAN International Special Projects & Communications Coordinator

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