This past week, the people of Ecuador voted to vest new constitutional “Rights of Nature, or ecosystem rights” in their natural resources to elevate their legal status from property to “right-bearing entities.” Now, natural resources have legal rights, just like other nonhumans, such as corporations and ships. Citizens are now authorized to file lawsuits against corporations to prevent the destruction of natural resources and to recover damages.
Ecuador’s new constitution is part of a larger movement in the US. The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) has been assisting local communities with drafting laws to provide legal rights to natural resources, stop corporations from raiding and destroying natural resources and protect the health and well-being of the community.
Communities nationwide are fighting back with laws that have enormous potential implications for global warming, endangered species, diminishing natural resources, pollution, and contamination.
The idea of providing natural resources with legal rights is not new. In a landmark environmental case, Sierra Club v. Morton (1972), Justice Douglas argued in a dissenting opinion that “inanimate objects,” like our natural resources, should also have standing to file lawsuits as a means of “self-defense” from pollution and environmental degradation. The problem is that many environmental laws do not prevent destruction of our natural resources, but legalize an “acceptable” level of pollution and degradation. Justice Douglas recognized that the problem was enhanced by a system that fails to provide the needed protection due to special interests that successfully manipulate Congress or federal agencies to minimize environmental protections.
In more recent cases, courts have indicated that vesting legal rights in natural resources is not implausible, but Congress needs to provide that standing in legislation. In Cetacean Community v. Bush (2004), the court sadly held that the language in the environmental statutes did not vest the world’s cetaceans (marine mammals like whales, porpoises, and dolphins) with standing to compel Bush to comply with the law. But, the courts are not dismissing the idea as frivolous. In 1988, the Ninth Circuit stated that the endangered Palila bird “has legal status and wings its way into federal court as a plaintiff in its own right.” Lower courts were split as to whether this language meant that endangered species had standing to enforce the law. The upshot is that the Constitution does not prevent Congress from vesting standing in animals or natural resources but there must be some language in the statutes which are now generally limited to persons.
Local communities are not waiting for Congress to take action, opting instead to enact ordinances which vest legal rights in natural resources and ban corporations from conducting activities which harm natural resources, such as mining, sludge and factory farms. For example, in Tamaqua, Pennsylvania, agribusinesses were “spreading sewage sludge on fields, and a mining company was dumping coal ash and river dredge into an empty strip mine.” One mother, who had worked on a study documenting elevated cancer rates, was concerned about how this waste may impact health. She ran for city council, which in 2006 adopted an ordinance recognizing that local ecosystems had enforceable rights against corporations, banned corporations from the practice of land application of sludge and established that local residents had standing to file lawsuits to protect nature’s rights.
“Four other communities in the state have since passed similar ordinances denying corporations personhood” and “100 communities in Pennsylvania have since passed ordinances to keep corporations out that they don’t want.”
Communities are “stripping” corporations of constitutional rights which are used by corporations to nullify local laws. The state responded by authorizing the attorney general to sue municipalities to overturn the ordinances, an easy task because in 1886 the US Supreme Court “granted corporations ‘personhood'” and the accompanying rights of due process and equal protection. Yet, while lawsuits have been filed, “so far, five years after the first Pennsylvania towns stood up to the factory farms and sewage sludge corporations, not one new factory farm or “one teaspoon of sludge” has gone into the 100 communities.”
Communities have responded by enacting more laws. In 2008, the town council of Halifax, Virginia enacted an ordinance to vest legal rights in natural resources and ecosystems. This ordinance also banned chemical and radioactive bodily trespass to assert the people’s right to not be irradiated or “trespassed upon” by toxic substances released by a proposed uranium mine in an adjacent county.
In Barnstead, New Hampshire, the local council enacted a law to stop corporate privatization of their local water supplies, which include a river, 4 lakes and an aquifer. The law prevents corporate water miners from raiding their water supplies for bottled water only to leave behind the environmental degradation of lowered water tables, pollutants and damage to wetlands.
The fight against corporations is being waged town by town by ordinary citizens fed up with corporations raiding their natural resources and degrading their environment. In California, a community “passed a referendum banning outside corporations from participating in elections” and a Pennsylvania community “outlawed the destructive practice of longwall coal mining.”
Providing natural resources with legal status has significant implications for our human rights as well as a variety of pressing environmental issues, such as pollution, environmental degradation, climate change, mountaintop removal mining and protection of threatened and endangered species:
The idea has implications for climate change and other debates. The right of polar bears to exist as part of an intact Arctic community could be asserted in court to obtain injunctions against a range of activities that could infringe that right. The law would also restrict the mandates and powers of public institutions and entities such as companies to do anything that increased greenhouse gas emissions, deeming this to be an infringement not only of human rights, but also of the rights of the whole “Earth community”.
Our existing environmental system has failed us miserably. These laws return some measure of popular democratic control to the people to protect our environment, community and families from the now legalized contamination and destruction by corporations and our government.