As an environmental justice campaigner in North America, sometimes I feels like I am operating in a bubble.
I am in San Francisco in the midst of a national “debate” on the U.S. debt, in a bubble at the Global Exchange headquarters where environmental activists have gathered from across the country to discuss the need for a paradigm shift with regards to our relationship with the environment.
Three months after the launch of the book The Rights of Nature: The Case for a Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth, by the Council of Canadians, Global Exchange and Fundacion Pachamama, a meeting took place in San Francisco this weekend to discuss next steps including joint strategies for the climate talks in Durban and the Rio + 20 Earth Summit in 2012.
Convened by Global Exchange, the meeting brought together representatives from organizations working to advance the rights of nature in communities around the world. Among them, la Fundacion Pachamama, an organization that played a central role in making Ecuador the first country to officially recognize the rights of nature within its constitution.
While Natalia Greene of Pachamama talked about the challenges of implementing this ground-breaking legislation, the rights of nature has created the space for communities to demand greater protection for the environment in a country with powerful foreign oil and mining interests. Although the Ecuadorean government has been inconsistent in its recognition of environmental rights, communities like the Waorani have been successful in keeping Brazilian oil giant Petrobras out of the Yasuni rainforest, one of the most biodiverse forests on earth by getting the government to establish a “no extraction zone” within an area containing rich oil deposits.
Constitutional change seems light years away in countries like Canada and the United States.
As the U.S. corporate media scrambles to determine who won the national debt debate in Washington, there is little doubt about who is losing. The wealthiest Americans will see little change, while the rest of the country deals with trillions of dollars in cuts to social programs or “entitlements” as the Republicans refer to them.
In the midst of these discussions on how to protect corporate profits while slashing programs to protect vulnerable segments of society, the case for communities to develop strategies against corporate destruction of the environment is even more poignant.
There have been 125 municipal ordinances recognizing the rights of nature that have enabled communities to stand up to corporate destruction of their land, air and water. Most recently, Pittsburgh stopped hydraulic fracturing by passing a community bill of rights. It is what, Ben Price of the Community Environmental Legal Defence Fund refers to as stripping corporations of their privileges. CELDF and Global Exchange have worked with communities across the United States to challenge corporate-friendly policies at the state and federal levels.
Rights of nature and water
Applied to water, the rights of nature approach calls for the protection of natural cycles of lakes, rivers, aquifers against harmful human activity. Many of the municipal ordinances have been used to protect surface and ground water from irreversible damage through hydraulic fracturing, groundwater extraction, toxic sludge spreading and other large scale industrial projects. In addition to ordinances banning harmful activities, there have been bills promoting sustainability enabling community to set forth policies promoting food sovereignty and self sufficiency. Santa Monica’s bill of rights has enabled water recycling and grey water use, which would otherwise be illegal according to state law, says Shannon Biggs of Global Exchange.
Last week, the Council of Canadians and its allies celebrated the one-year anniversary of the official recognition of water as a human right at the United Nations General Assembly. In our work to see this right implemented in national legislation, we will stress the need to recognize the human as a component of the natural world. Water is fundamental to all life and beyond human consumption; it is central to the rights of all other species to exist and flourish. As we have emphasized on numerous occasions, the right to water and sanitation will need to take into account the sustainable use of watersheds to ensure the protection of lakes, rivers, aquifers and the species that depend on them. We reject anthropocentric approaches and shortsighted measures to address water and sanitation needs like desalination which poses a threat to oceanic life.
Much of the discussion focused on the tensions between market mechanisms that call for the environment to be regulated by pricing mechanisms and the rights of nature paradigm. An earth-centred approach does not allow corporations to pay to pollute or abuse the environment. In recent years, corporations have partnered with environmental NGOs to promote such strategies as water offsets enabling multinationals like Coca Cola to gain PR points by destroying the environment in one part of the world while promoting conservation efforts elsewhere, proclaiming themselves “water neutral.” Water offsets, carbon trading and other market mechanisms have attempted to artificially quantity environmental damage by downplaying the impacts of damaging local ecosystems.
Anne Petermann of the Global Justice Ecology Project refers to this as “corporations trying to maintain business as usual by co-opting green discourse.”
So perhaps the strategy is not to step outside the bubble to attempt dialogues with those who will continue to strengthen the mechanisms of global capitalism that are responsible for the environmental crisis, but to expand and strengthen our bubble. To create bubbles in the form of no extraction zones, local bills of rights and municipal ordinances that keep corporate greed out of our communities.