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The rights of nature: A new strategy in the struggle for ecological wholeness

31 January 2014

The world’s first Tribunal on the Rights of Nature, held in Quito, Ecuador last 17 January 2014 heard eight cases to determine their admissibility for adjudication at a later Tribunal, which will be held in another city and country later this year. The Tribunal for Rights of Nature will become permanent, hearing cases around the world. Photo credit: therightsofnature.org

James E Hug, SJ

Do West Virginians have a right to clean water? Beyond that, do West Virginia waterways have the right to be protected from polluters? Do rainforests or the Great Barrier Reef have the right to survive? Can the court systems of the countries of the world be used to protect Mother Nature’s rights?

It may sound like a stretch of the imagination, but an important gathering of international leaders in the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature  movement took place 13 to 17 January 2014 in Otavalo and Quito, Ecuador. According to a press release from the Global Alliance, the meeting’s two purposes are “to analyze the experiences of communities in Ecuador, Bolivia, and the United States that have already implemented ‘Rights of Nature’ laws and to devise a unified global strategy for advancing the Rights of Nature movement around the world.”

Few people know that the United States is a leader in this new effort to find a way to oppose ecological degradation. Local municipalities in the US were the first to adopt laws establishing legal structures that recognized Rights of Nature, beginning in 2006 with Tamaqua Borough in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania. Since then, more than two dozen US communities have adopted local laws recognizing Rights of Nature, including Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which in November 2010 became the first major municipality in the US to do so. This is all the more surprising given the obstructionism of the US government in so many international ecological fora.

In addition, nearly 100 grassroots organizations in the Americas, Africa, Asia, Australia, and Europe are members of the Global Alliance for Rights of Nature, advancing the Rights of Nature movement in their municipalities, counties, provinces, and countries. Why don’t we as world citizens know more about this movement? Why aren’t our Catholic universities active in this movement? Our Jesuit law schools?

The four dozen leaders who joined the summit represented diverse disciplines, cultures, nations, and bioregions. These included Indian physicist Vandana Shiva, South African lawyer and author Cormac Cullinan, US Catholic Sister Patricia Siemen, OP, North American indigenous leader Tom Goldtooth, former Bolivian UN ambassador Pablo Solón, and U.S. community rights attorney Thomas Linzey. The group as a whole is comprised of economists, lawyers, scientists, indigenous leaders, community activists, nuns, actors, authors, and public officials hailing from Australia, Switzerland, South Africa, United States, Spain, Canada, India, Romania, Bolivia, Argentina, and England, as well as Ecuador.

The summit concluded on Friday, 17 January, with a public Tribunal in Quito where eight Rights of Nature cases were heard. With law professor Ramiro Ávila from Ecuador serving as prosecutor, he sought admissibility of the cases under the 2010 Universal Declaration of Rights of Mother Earth. These cases included the Chevron/Texaco case in Ecuador, the oil exploitation of Yasuní-ITT in Ecuador’s rainforest, the destruction of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, the 2010 Deepwater Horizon (BP) oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the practice of fracking in the US, copper mining in the Amazon, genetic modification of crops, and government and corporate blocking of action on global climate change. Carlos Pérez of Ecuador presented his own imprisonment case for protecting water as “emblematic of the criminalization of defending nature.”

Drawing on precedents established in other successful Rights of Nature cases – such as the one finding that the rights of the Vilcabamba River were violated by pollution – the Tribunal provided a model on adjudicating the rights of nature in courts of law.

Sister Elise Garcia, OP, Communications Director for the Adrian Dominican Sisters in the US, shared daily blogs from the Global Summit for National Catholic Reporter’s Eco-Catholic blog.

For more information, please see Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature.

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3 Responses to The rights of nature: A new strategy in the struggle for ecological wholeness

  1. pedro walpole on 7 February 2014 at 11:39 pm

    Dear David Haschka, good to hear from you, yes we wonder sometimes why the world is so slow to cotton on, maybe it is the different languages we speak, legal, economic, scientific, political, spiritual, developmental… maybe we are speaking to different people of a different ilk but hopefully all bring us closer to the common need, care for the Earth. For many people of the systems we have in the world, if it is not in my interest and happening in the next there years then it has no currency. sometimes deep down basic values of common sense are hard to operate by and there has to be a great push by people to get common sense through. I hope we are doing that better, the recent disasters we have had in the Philippines have humbled us in many ways and we are learning we must respond better and the challenge is within our scope. Universities are certainly trying but it takes a lot of guts to get above the administration and set course with commitment and not rhetoric for the desired horizon. I don’t want to name Jesuit universities or others, but I have had a lot to do with students and garbage segregation, then ecological buildings are on the rise and now they are getting down to the challenge of a much more transformative education, that you study the science and then go see, technology wise and impact wise what is happening on the ground, its always too slow but there is for me growing hope. Hopefully you will write for us something of you struggle and interest, thank you, Pedro

  2. Jim Hug on 7 February 2014 at 10:53 pm

    Hi David,
    At first I was a bit skeptical too, but your response is the one people used when the issue of rights of slaves was first raised – and those of women. The foundations of rights are being and nature and are grounded in creation. They relate to one’s nature and one’s place and role in the larger context of creation. I think we need to be a bit more open to how this unfolds. You might want to check out Pittsburgh that has enshrined some of these rights in state law to see how it could play out. To be honest, we need all the tools we can find give the abuse and over-exploitation of nature now going on.
    Jim

  3. David Haschka on 6 February 2014 at 10:36 pm

    Why are Jesuit universities not involved in this? Perhaps because of its overwhelming silliness. Ecological responsibility must be argued as being demonstrably in humanity’s best interest, not in terms of some fictitious rights.

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