Statements by indigenous program director of Movement Rights; Rights of Nature attorney; Hawaiian sovereignty movement leader; current member of Navajo Commission on Self-Governance; organizer behind the Lake Erie Bill of Rights; mutual aid organizer for Columbia River villages and the Celilo Wy’am; legislator who sponsored state constitutional amendment efforts to win municipalities governing power over corporations; Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund organizers; legal spokesperson for the Siletz River ecosystem; advocate for first-in-the-nation Rights of Nature law prohibiting corporate water extractions; and Another Gulf is Possible organizer released in response to Democratic Party’s interest in the Rights of Nature.
This August, the Democratic National Committee Council on the Environment & Climate Crisis released an “Environmental and Climate Policy Agenda for the Democratic Party.” It recommended the formation of a presidential Rights of Nature commission. It reads:
“Establish a commission, similar to the President’s Council on Sustainable Development, to explore incorporating Rights of Nature principles into U.S. law.”
This recommendation did not make it into the final party platform, but nonetheless shows Rights of Nature’s growing popularity. This presents opportunities, and risks.
A broad list of leaders within the growing Rights of Nature movement within the United States have offered perspective on the developments within the Democractic Party:
“In theory, a Rights of Nature commission is a step in the right direction of environmental justice; but in reality, a corporate-friendly DNC platform could derail the real work and advances of the global and national Rights of Nature movement. Rights of Nature is deep system change, not tinkering at the margins of a rigged system. Rights of Nature requires policy and business decision-making based on the needs of the ecosystem as a whole, which will mean a massive and necessary shift of how business is done, including how communities of color are targeted for the most polluting projects. The question is whether the DNC is ready to embrace the idea that humans are part of — and not owners of — the natural world, and whether their interpretation of Rights of Nature would dilute its framework of revolutionary change. Rights of Nature is rooted in Indigenous cosmology and the idea of Rights as responsibilities — specifically ensuring humans are living in balance with the ecosystems upon which we depend. The Traditional Ecological Knowledge of Indigenous people must be respected and woven into laws to protect humanity and the sacred system of life — which can well function without us, but which we need to survive.” – Pennie Opal Plant, Co-founder and Indigenous Program Director, Movement Rights
“While I’m delighted to see a major political party interested in Rights of Nature policies, I’m also concerned that the DNC may not take seriously the legal paradigm shift that recognizing rights for ecosystems represents. The DNC must include the organizations and lawyers who have been doing this work on-the-ground, in particular the indigenous communities who have been at the frontlines of recognizing the destruction caused by our current nature-is-property paradigm.” – Lindsey Schromen-Wawrin, Rights of Nature attorney, clients have included Lake Erie Ecosystem, Little Mahoning Watershed, Crystal Springs Ecosystem, and Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund
“When you elevate something into a focus group at the national level and in such a politicized way, commissions like this merely reflect the political system — and water down more transformative demands. At worst indigenous peoples and grassroots environmental groups would be left out. At best, their voices and concerns would be marginalized. When you start forming committees, things tend to be sanitized for the political system. We saw this happen on Climate Change and look where it got us. If such a commission is launched it must engage a deep outreach campaign, and remain committed to transformative demands. In order to ensure such an effort is inclusive of all, a special effort would need to be made to specifically include indigenous peoples of the US including Indigenous Hawiians and Alaska Natives as well as the Indian Nations.” – Mililani Trask, native Hawaiian attorney, and a leader within the Hawaiian sovereignty movement
“It is so ingrained within colonial legal systems to think that central governments must make decisions on our behalf. Colonial legal systems see law as a punitive force for control only, rather than something people can be taught to follow to bring healing, peace and self-regulation. To decolonize the law and honor Fundamental Law and the laws of earth is to support those who are practicing fundamental indiginous peoples’ laws of nature. It means starting from the grassroots, and building from there, not coming from the top down through a punitive system. It means seeing ancient songs and ceremonies as tools for the transmission and interpretation of law.” – Phil Bluehouse, current member of Navajo Commission on Self-Governance, former director of the Navajo judicial Peacemaking Program, former tribal police officer, who has worked to honor Navajo code’s recognition of Fundamental Law (Title 1, Chapter 2, Subsections 201-206)
“The critics tell us our efforts are meaningless, but find it ‘legitimate’ when an ‘authority’ like the DNC begins to take Rights of Nature seriously. We cannot lose track of the fact that grassroots organizers are pushing this conversation, and the creative approaches to new governance. The fact that the DNC is contemplating this is a testament to the bravery of local communities willing to take action, despite the naysayers.” – Markie Miller, organizer behind the Lake Erie Bill of Rights, the first law on United States settler colonial land to recognize the rights of a specific ecosystem
“I give the highest honor to the Ancestors of this Turtle Island. I speak to the heinous crimes against our Mother Earth and all living breathing beings in the circle of life under extinction. We must respond to her call to love, and care for her — our provider of water and life on this earth. Greatest honor to my ancient one Celilo Falls, Wayamtama, flooded but not dead and buried — only a prisoner of war like myself. Denied our right to exist and coexist in the ways designed by the creator of the law of nature that is Natural Law. We maintain the Ceremony to abide by the Natural Law as the Keepers, the preservationists of our territories. We are the Original Stewards of our respective territories here in the Northwest and all across the land. Many treaty rights involve the rights to practice traditional fishing, hunting, gathering and practices, but the true meaning of these rights is much deeper. These rights are about the duty to protect the Law of Nature, to be Stewards of it, to take only what we need for the preservation of our sacred foods and way. Honor the Treaties first, then we can talk about a ‘commission’!” – Lana Jack, mutual aid organizer for Columbia River villages and the Celilo Wy’am, an unrecognized tribe, founder of Columbia River Indian Center
“Recognizing the Rights of Nature is not some hippie-dippy concept; it is nothing less than the full acknowledgement of the very concrete reality that humanity is a part of the ecosystem, and dependent on the life-sustaining systems of the Earth. Although I commend the DNC for taking up the issue of Rights of Nature, past experience has taught me to be wary. The vast majority of Democrats support the concept, but there is a pro-corporate element in the party structure itself that may seek to either water down, or worse, pervert this push.” – Ellen Read, New Hampshire State Representative who sponsored state constitutional amendment efforts to afford municipalities governing power over corporations, including to recognize the rights of local ecosystems
“We don’t need the DNC’s empty promise to form a “commission,” nor the rhetoric. What we need is an unequivocal law or Constitutional amendment granting the rights of Nature and its components — including humans — unalterable supremacy over commercial profits and conferring standing on natural objects to sue for their own protection.” – Carol Van Strum, advocate for Lincoln County, Oregon Rights of Nature ordinance that stood for two years, ongoing human legal spokesperson for the Siletz River ecosystem, author of A Bitter Fog
“While it is important that the Rights of Nature be taken seriously by lawmakers and aspiring lawmakers, it is just as important that the foundational changes to our systems of law and government necessary to end the destruction of Nature are not minimized by empowering a politically motivated commission to ‘study’ the idea. We insist on real, enforceable Rights of Nature — nothing else will suffice to end our environmental and climate catastrophes. If we have learned anything from studying past movements for real systemic change, it is that once political parties turn the issue into a political debate, the movement weakens or dies. There is no time for this nonsense today. Nature already has more power and authority over humans and corporations, the question is if we have the wisdom to recognize it.” – Tish O’Dell, Ben Price, Chad Nicholson, Michelle Sanborn, Kai Huschke, Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund organizers, collectively worked with dozens of communities on settler colonial land to recognize enforceable rights of ecosystems
“We are at a time when the Rights of Nature must be centered and can no longer be ignored. At the end of the Mississippi River, just north of the Gulf of Mexico’s hypoxic ‘Dead Zone,’ south of the petrochemical corridor known as ‘Cancer Alley,’ our ancestral Houma lands and waters and delta wetland territories are witnessing what happens when the Rights of Nature are ignored, suffering the consequences as sea-levels rise and land subsides, as politicians debate over which of our coastal communities are to be sacrificed to the sea. We need real Democratic leadership that understands the wellbeing of life on this planet is dependent upon survival strategies tied to recognizing, respecting and investing in regenerative relationships built in collaboration with the Earth’s intelligence and her interconnected systems.” – Monique Verdin, Citizen of United Houma Nation, Another Gulf is Possible
“The DNC’s interest in ‘establishing a committee to study the Rights of Nature’ is disingenuous. The failure of the DNC to challenge the corporate stranglehold on policy is evident in omissions from the platform, notably, any pledge to end fossil fuel subsidies, to support Medicare-for-All, to legalize marijuana, to defund the police, to abolish ICE, to eliminate student debt, to provide free public college tuition to all, or to divert funding from an obscenely-bloated military budget. It is shameful to pay lip-service to a movement, the Rights of Nature, while apparently having no intention of standing up to corporate disregard for the planet and human health.” – Diane St. Germain, Citizens of Barnstead for a Living Democracy, advocate for first-in-the-nation Rights of Nature 2008 law prohibiting corporate water extractions in Barnstead, NH