February 24, 2024
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Update 2023/7/30
Rights of Nature

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By Suzanne Forcese
Unmuting Rights of Nature
Ohio’s CELDF aims to restore Rights of Nature after lawmakers’ pushback

Language inserted into the spring 2020 Ohio budget:

Nature or any ecosystem does not have standing to participate in or bring an action in any Court of Common Pleas. No person, on behalf of or representing nature or an ecosystem, shall bring an action in any Court of Common Pleas against a person who is acting on behalf of or representing nature or an ecosystem. No person, on behalf of or representing nature or an ecosystem, shall intervene in any manner, such as by filing a counterclaim, crossclaim, or third-party complaint, in any action brought in any Court of Common Pleas.

Related -  Tish O’Dell Community Organizer - Portrait of a water guardian

Interview with Tish O’Dell, Consulting Director CELDF

WT: Please describe for our viewers what “Rights Of Nature” is.

O’Dell: Rights Of Nature is a global movement that recognizes rights for Nature itself as a living entity with recognizable rights separate from humans.

We currently have laws that protect the rights of humans and corporations, but Nature has no protective rights. In our legal system, Nature is viewed as property to be owned and then used, exploited, or even destroyed by the owner of the property. Most of the time for profit.

In our history, humans were owned at one point. That is the position Nature is currently in.

We, at CELDF want to recognize that Nature has rights because violations cannot be claimed if there are no rights to begin with.

WT: Is this “Nature is property to be owned” a global perception?

O’Dell: I would say it is a Western Culture – it could be countries anywhere in the world that have adopted our culture – the colonizer view as opposed to the indigenous view. Indigenous people worldwide have never viewed Nature as property. They have always recognized that we are Nature—another species and Earth is a living entity that we must protect. It is about protecting ourselves.

WT: What is CELDF and how did you become involved?

O’Dell: CELDF stands for the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund. We are a non-profit public interest law firm that has been around since 1998. We started out as a traditional environmental law firm. After a few years, we realized that the environmental laws were not stopping harm to those communities contacting us for help.

I started with CELDF in 2010 because there was harm coming to my community of Broadview Heights, Ohio. A fracking enterprise. I tried working through the system, approaching local electees, and the Environmental Protection Agency, but nobody was willing to help stop the harm. I decided to run for office because I thought that would fix the problem when I was introduced to CELDF.

CELDF helped educate me and my community to this “rights” approach that they had been working on. My community, Broadview Heights, passed the first Rights of Nature Bill in Ohio in 2012.

WT: And was there pushback?

O’Dell: A lot of pushback. If we think about other movements for the expansion of rights such as slavery, women’s rights, and civil rights, the people who currently have rights are going to push back because that is now another entity that might accuse them or even sue them for violations.

It is levelling the playing field. Corporations can get into court to defend their rights, and humans can use the court system to defend their rights, but Nature cannot even get into court to at least make arguments. It does not mean that Nature would win every time but currently, arguments and data cannot even be presented.

In my community of Broadview Heights, we passed the law banning fracking with over 60% of the votes because it would violate our rights and Nature’s rights. Then two drilling corporations sued the community. The Court ruled the corporations’ rights were violated.

That is the kind of thing we see now. However, people should not be disheartened by that because every movement for change and expanding rights has faced those same obstacles.

It takes a while for the idea to get into people’s minds. A cultural shift is required. Laws should really represent the moral values of society. If a concept is also something that people have not heard of, first the idea has to be presented and the concept must be understood. It is interesting because, once that penny drops, most people finally grasp the conviction.

WT: Tell us about the language inserted into the Ohio Budget.

O’Dell: That was after the Lake Erie Bill of Rights passed in February 2019. It was the first law in the United States to recognize the rights of a specific ecosystem. Unbeknownst to us, the people who had passed the law and worked on the law, The Ohio Chamber of Commerce wrote the language.

We later learned it was inserted into a budget bill to pre-empt the rights of Nature. It means that no other community or person can bring anything into court claiming that Nature has rights

The Ohio Chamber of Commerce wrote it, handed it off to a legislator in northwest Ohio and inserted it into a several thousand-page budget bill the night before it was to be voted on.

Had they wanted to present this bill it ought to have been introduced into the legislature. It should have been made public, and people and other legislators should have had a debate, discussion and then a vote.

WT: Have there been any victories since that language was introduced?

O’Dell: We do have another community in Cincinnati working on the Ohio River Bill of Rights. They are currently collecting signatures. That is a victory because people are saying that the law is not right, and we are going to continue to challenge it. No one knows what is going to happen, but they are determined because the Ohio River is the second most polluted river in the United States according to the EPA.

In other countries there have been victories. We assisted Ecuador in 2008 to put the Rights of Nature language into their Constitution. Currently, they are the only country in the world that has that.

Since 2008 we have seen court cases. The Constitutional Court of Ecuador has applied the constitutional provision on the Rights of Nature to safeguard the Los Cedros Cloud Forest from mining concessions.

WT: Are there any wins in North America?

O’Dell: Rights of Nature is picking up steam. We see things like going to court as a win, and getting on a ballot as a win. Each attempt to push the Rights of Nature forward, creates media attention which helps push the cultural shift forward.

It is media outlets like WT that help push this forward. It is about having that conversation, about sharing ideas.

We know the current environmental laws are protected. We are experiencing the effects here in Ohio of the Canadian wildfires. The idea that Nature fits within a jurisdiction within these lines that we created is not the way it works. We are all impacted by environmental degradation and harm no matter where it is on our planet.

WT: What is next for CELDF?

O’Dell: We are currently expanding on the cultural shift. We are still involved in legal cases, but we are realizing as we have more of the cultural shift and people understand the concept the legal aspect will evolve.

We have had a legislator in New York who has introduced The Great Lakes Bill of Rights. He was influenced by The Lake Erie Bill of Rights. We are working to build a coalition in New York with many communities to help push that bill forward.

We also have a nationally acclaimed activist artist exhibiting her work on Rights of Nature in Cleveland next month and we will have some events running in synch to stimulate more conversations

Who will speak for Nature if not us? Nature has quite a powerful voice of her own as we are seeing with the heat waves, the fires, and the storms. However, in court, we must be her voice.

Sharing ideas is the most important thing we can do. People tend to think that unless we have a big march with a million people or a big rally or we get on national TV nothing is happening. 

The actual happening is in talking to your neighbors, your friends, your parents, and your children. That is where the expansion of rights begins.

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