Blog by Emily Arasim, WECAN Communications Coordinator
For just and effective climate change solutions, we must transform dominant economic, legal, social, political and cultural frameworks surrounding our relationship with each other and the living Earth.
On April 25, 2016, activists, educators, students, mothers and many other diverse allies joined together to explore this vital concept via an open online training, ‘Rights of Nature: Protecting and Defending the Places We Live’, presented by the Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network (WECAN) International.
Over the course of the training, presenters Shannon Biggs (Movement Rights) and Osprey Orielle Lake (WECAN) shared the paradigm-shifting work of Rights of Nature, and explained how it is already being used around the US and the world to challenge legal systems based on exploitation of the Earth, and instead usher in a new set of frameworks based upon the inherent rights and natural laws of Mother Earth.
Osprey Orielle Lake began the training by presenting an overview of the dynamic international Rights of Nature movement.
Osprey is the Founder and Executive Director of the Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network, working internationally with grassroots and Indigenous leaders, policymakers and scientists to mobilize women for climate justice, resilient communities, systemic change, and a just transition to a clean energy future. Osprey serves as co-Chair of International Advocacy for the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature and as a member of the Bay Area Alliance for the Rights of Nature, acting as a judge and secretariat at numerous Rights of Nature Tribunals and events in recent years. She is the author of the award-winning book, ‘Uprisings for the Earth: Reconnecting Culture with Nature’.
For Osprey and WECAN International, encountering Rights of Nature was a breakthrough, defining moment which allowed the organization to begin to address climate change at the deep systemic level that crisis of this magnitude demands – a level that confronts and calls for changes in our entire way of being, from the personal to the political.
“Rights of Nature is a revolutionary and evolutionary concept – which at the heart, at a very deep level, can address the dysfunctional economic and legal frameworks that are currently destroying people and planet,” Osprey began.
“After decades of environmental protection laws, which have had some notable successes, we can see that modern legal frameworks overwhelmingly fail to prevent the threats of climate change, degradation of our ecosystems and the growing displacement of humans and other species. So to live sustainably, we really need to change the very DNA of our legal frameworks,” she continued.
Osprey explained that the vast majority of modern legal frameworks treat nature as property, meaning that life giving forests, mountains, rivers and lakes can be sold, consumed and devastated under the protection of trade, property rights and commerce laws.
Because the Earth is treated as property, it has no legal standing of it’s own, rendering violations and harms to the Earth invisible in the modern ‘justice’ system.
“Yes we have environmental laws, but who is writing them? Yes we have regulation, but they are just giving limits to pollution, not attempting to halt it.”
“It is clear that we cannot solve this crisis by further subjecting the Earth to the very same system and worldview that caused this crisis,” she explained, outlining how capitalism and extractive modern economies inherently and by their very nature rely upon this legalized ownership of the Earth.
According to Osprey, the consequences of dominant legal frameworks reach deeper than just empowerment of destructive economics and failure to protect the growing threats of climate change.
“In adhering to current structures of law, we are furthering a dangerous human relationship with the natural world, and a vision of exploitation that cannot be allowed to continue. It all comes from, and continues to support this old paradigm, based in patriarchy and colonialism. A paradigm of ‘dominion over’ – dominion over women, dominion over the Earth, and dominion over Indigenous cultures. This is why at WECAN our four founding principles are the Rights of Women, the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the Rights of Nature and the Rights of Future Generations. ”
“Just as we recognize that it is wrong for men to consider women property, we really need to have an entirely different legal configuration that recognizes that Earth’s living systems are not the property of humans,” she continued.
Osprey went on to share inspiring news – action to challenge dominant systems of law and usher in a vision of rights and respect for the living Earth is not just theoretical, but rather is being put into action by a growing body of organizations, communities and countries.
Countries like Bolivia and Ecuador have adopted Rights of Nature measures within their national constitutions (albeit with serious problems in implementation). In New Zealand, a river has been giving legal rights and standing. Across the US and beyond, communities are passing local Rights of Nature ordinances to stop fracking, GMO’s, corporate theft of water and much more.
“Rights of Nature is a tool to directly stop corporate activities by raising human and Earth rights above those of the corporations,” Osprey emphasized, “We can change our laws, and we have the right to do that.”
With this strong vision, Rights of Nature thus emerges as a tool to challenge extractive industries, corrupt trade deals, carbon trading and false climate solutions, while also opening a door for personal and collective return to a life affirming relationship with the Earth.
“There is a real need to also change our fundamental personal values and what we uphold as meaningful in our lives…In this sense the development and implementation of Rights of Nature is best understood as a deep and necessary shift in our human understanding of our tie to Earth, as well as a change in legal and economic structures. It is about changing our values, our laws and our culture at the same time.”
In closing her presentation, Osprey highlighted a parallel and deeply interconnected movement from Indigenous leaders of South America.
“‘Sumak Kawsi’ or ‘Buen Vivir’, ‘good living’ has been described by Indigenous allies in many ways, including living in ecological and economic balance; harmony in relationships; personal and collective growth appropriate to local conditions; good health; living well in community, including the larger ecologic community; and a worldview centered on a “living cosmos that we are part and particle of.”
Sumak Kawsi is a worldview poised to helping bring life and actualization to the critical ideas encompassed within Rights of Nature.
Another avenue through which Rights of Nature are being put into action is International Rights of Nature Tribunals, a growing body of events in which expert judges and witnesses try diverse cases of Earth rights violations to demonstrate how Rights of Nature could be implemented, and the incredible momentum and results that can be engendered by their use. Osprey closed with a short video on the recent Tribunal in Paris during COP21 climate negotiations.
As the enchanting final words of Casey Camp Horinek (Ponca Nation) closed the video, Shannon Biggs took the floor.
Shannon Biggs is the Co-Founder and Director of Movement Rights, an organization born in 2015 out of 12 years of work with Global Exchange, where she served as Director of Development before beginning the Community and Nature’s Rights Program.
Shannon is a leading international speaker, author and activist on the growing movement for Rights of Nature, and is the co-author of two books and many reports, including ‘Building the Green Economy: Success Stories from the Grass Roots’ and ‘The Rights of Nature’. She is a lecturer of weekend ‘Democracy Schools’ that explore the rights-based framework for change, and leads Rights of Nature trainings around the country and world.
Shannon began her presentation my framing two critical questions – ‘What would it look like to live in a world in which the Rights of Nature are upheld?’ and more importantly, ‘How do we get there?’.
Shannon’s reply to the second question was short and powerful; “System change starts where you live.”
Through Movement Rights and other allied organizations, Shannon is working to build towards system change by “shifting law and culture”.
Her works sits at the intersection of Rights of Nature and community rights, focused on helping communities take back power in their locale by writing new laws that recognize their right to protect the Earth and determine what happens in their community, effectively placing their rights and Earth Rights over the supposed ‘rights’ of corporations.
“We are told that things like fracking, or dams or water withdrawals or the many other things that makes our homes sacrifice zones, we are told that we don’t have the ability to say no to say to those things,” Shannon explained.
“…but the kind of rights we are talking about are not gifts from governments, the kind of rights we are talking about are inalienable – the right to clean water, clean air… We cannot give these away and this is not something the government can grant us.”
“So our work is about changing the rules. If the law is standing in the way of us protecting our children, protecting our families, protecting Nature – then it is time to change the law and change where decisions are made.”
“Imagine, for example, what would it look like for the Gulf coast if the ecosystem had rights in a court of law to sure BP for full restoration? How quickly would we have changed how deep sea drilling is done, or if it is done at all?” she questioned.
Shannon framed law as “how we use power to make real a worldview”. Currently, law is empowering a worldview based on patriarchy, rights and dominion over the Earth and endless material growth, but this need not be the case. In challenging and changing law, we break down structures of power and dangerous worldviews.
“History shows us again and again that culture changes law, and law in turn broadly changes culture,” Shannon explained, drawing attention to Right of Nature as a continuation of the trajectory of past peoples movement for rights, including movements to abolish slavery and fight for women’s rights.
Shannon also spoke deeply to the centrality of Indigenous rights and leadership within the context of Rights of Nature.
“This is a time for Indigenous leadership. This is about learning from the original instructions… and this is what we need most desperately – how do we begin to restore our relationship with the Earth – in our mind states, laws and cultures?” she reflected.
“Indigenous people are standing up at this time, all around the world, to showcase how to protect the Earth. They are the defenders and protectors of the most biodiverse places on Earth, and from them we have so much to learn about how to live in balance. As part of Rights of Nature we must support global communities to make sure that Indigenous lands stay in Indigenous hands.”
Shannon closed by sharing the case of Tamaqua Borough, Pennsylvania, USA, the first global community to enact a local Rights of Nature ordinance.
In the face of attempts to fill a nearby mine site with contaminated sludge, citizens organized successfully to create a local law declaring the right of the ecosystem to be free from further contamination. Since this 2006 victory, the movement has spread quickly.
“What started as a ripple in the pond in Tamaqua Borough went to Ecuador, to Bolivia, to New Zealand, to India and it also came back to countless small communities who began asking ‘how can we do that here?’.”
Shannon noted that most Tamaqua Borough residents did not necessarily see themselves as environmental defenders, or as beings spiritually connected to the Earth, but rather saw Rights of Nature as a practical and effective tool for community, home and land protection.
“This is very important to consider as we explore how this movement can grow and spread. We must meet and start where people are.”
Nonetheless, Shannon explained that recognizing Rights of Nature and the legal standing of the Earth does ultimately means taking responsibility for our personal stewardship, recognizing that we are part and parcel of the Earth, and involving ourselves in organizing and action to defend and ensure that her rights are effectively and justly upheld once recognized.
Shannon closed by sharing information about the Bay Area ‘What Would The Delta Say? Rights of Tribunal’, held in April 2016 in the San Francisco Bay Area.
The Tribunal was used as a stage to discuss and try corporate and state actors seeking to build tunnels to take water from Northern to Southern California to spur development and continued fracking and oil drilling.
“Through the Tribunal we want to give a voice to the Delta ecosystem. It is an opportunity for the fish to speak, for the marshes to speak, for us to truly look at how this affects the people and ecosystems of the Delta. It is an opportunity to pursue environmental justice and to envision a world in which rights were upheld.”
In closing the training, Osprey framed Rights of Nature as a powerful tool to take back power in our communities, reassert our democracy, and challenge corrupt ‘1%’ governance structures facilitating environmental and social abuses around the world.
The training ended with a fascinating Questions and Answer session in which participants delved into topics including the applicability of Rights of Nature to movements to protect seeds, farmers rights, and stop GMOs; connection between Rights of Nature and work to defend and support land defenders; Rights of Nature as an element of preparations and community capacity developments for Treaty negotiations of Indigenous peoples in US, Canada and beyond; problems with commodification of the Earth and assigning monetary value to ecosystem functions; and reflections on identity, “deep and ancient reciprocal relationship” and our sacred interconnection with the Earth.
Rights of Nature Training Resources (shared by presenters and training participants):
- Movement Rights
- WECAN Work on the Rights of Nature
- Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature
- Bay Area Rights of Nature Alliance
- Earth Law Center
- Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth
- International Rights of Nature Tribunal – Paris
- VIDEO: Introduction to the International Rights of Nature Tribunal
- Daily Kos – Tribunal Considers Rights of Nature in Imperiled San Francisco Bay Delta
- Movement Rights, Indigenous Environmental Network, Global Exchange report – Rights of Nature and Mother Earth: Sowing Seeds of Resistance, Love and Change
- Asserting Our Right to Protect Our Communities – Community Rights Toolkit by Shannon Biggs
- EcoWatch – Recognizing the Rights of Nature and Living Forest by Osprey Orielle Lake
- Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature Article Resource Collection
- Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund
- Dr Vandana Shiva Global Seed Freedom Initiative (rooted in Rights of Nature work)
- Benton County Community Rights Coalition and ‘Food Bill of Rights’
- The International Monsanto Tribunal (October 2016)
- Oregon Community Rights Network
- REDD Monitor