Growing global movement calls for giving mother nature her rights

By Drew Penner

The experience of growing up in Alberta, watching forests get cut down and lakes become polluted in the service of a petroleum industry that didn’t seem to funnel riches towards marginalized communities, is in the back of Shannon LeBlanc’s mind these days as she hops on Facebook to advocate for a new kind of right. The 55-year-old Victoria resident is just an ordinary British Columbian, but she’s hoping to make her voice heard online, as she seeks to build momentum for the movement to enshrine the ecosystem with legal status.

“This is what we need to look at,” she said, explaining she wants to see the natural world taken seriously in the same way property is by judges, lawyers and businessmen. “Because it doesn’t look like there’s anyone in Canada doing that.”

It’s an idea that’s far from the realm of the British legal system on which modern North America was founded. But places like New Zealand, Ecuador and Bolivia have recently taken steps to introduce what supporters call “rights of nature” into their legislative framework. Some of America’s more progressive states have been looking at the idea seriously, and with discussions raging around Kinder Morgan and Site C in British Columbia, many would like to see forests, watersheds and the air we breathe get similar governmental protections here too.

“We’re pretty lucky to have forests,” LeBlanc said. “Protests are important but eventually they’ll shut down the protests.”

Ben Price, the national organizing director of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund in the U.S. says current ecological law is really just about controlling the rate at which the environment is destroyed.

“These are considered to be resources rather than entities with a legal right to flourish,” he said. “That’s the status nature has today.”

His organization was part of successfully convincing the state of Pennsylvania to adopt a law that would ban urban sewage sludge and the import and disposal of corporate and river dredging garbage, under the concept of a natural right. He says that without legal protections, the environment has no more status in our society than when humans were kept as slaves.

“The owner could do whatever the owner wanted to do,” Price said. “It was perfectly constitutional and legal.”

And he doesn’t believe that adding an additional class of rights would erode property rights, for a similar reason.

“There is no violation of property rights when you free a slave,” he said.

Dr. David R. Boyd, associate professor of law, policy, and sustainability at the University of British Columbia, says that for Canada to become a leader in environmental justice the country must take two big steps.

“First, we would need to recognize that all Canadians have the right to live in a healthy environment,” he said, explaining laws would need to be put on the books to emphasize the protection of vulnerable communities bearing the brunt of pollution and other ecological pressures. “Second, we would need to recognize the rights of nature, because it is really non-human species that are voiceless in Canada today, leading to the long and growing list of endangered and threatened species.”

Elevating natural elements to the level of human legal protection is a concept that doesn’t sit well with many critics of this movement, and when asked about his comparisons of the similarities of current plant matter and mineral property concerns holding similarities with human slaves, Price says while he’s not trying to draw a false equivalency, to say these are just lifeless beings would also be off the mark.

“Nature is not inanimate,” he said. “It’s a symbiotic living system.”

New Hampshire is currently holding hearings on a state constitutional amendment that would recognize rights of nature. And Price, currently considering a trip up to Canada to strengthen alliances, continues to play the long game.

“We’re not working for just today,” he said, describing his ultimate goal as a legit amendment to the U.S Constitution – way up there in high esteem alongside free speech and gun rights.
“Does anyone have the right to destroy an ecosystem to the point where it can’t recover?”

Back in Victoria, LeBlanc is planning the next phase of her own citizen crusade. She’s recruited a friend from Alberta and is gearing up to bug politicians until they listen.

“For me I’m working on the legal side of it and the research side of it,” she said, adding she’s already gotten started. “After a while they break down and they’ll listen to you.”

[Photo Peyto Lake, Canada by Gary Ullah]

One Response to Growing global movement calls for giving mother nature her rights

  1. Jill Skriver says:

    I’m sick of hearing about environmentalist’s coming up with crap, so they can shut down Canada’s oil. Did you know that an American lobby group donates 90% of thier money to Canadian “green” campaigners in a bid to shut down pipelines and logging. Trees are replaced 2 for 1, and having tankers bring in Arabian oil is obnoxious when we have an increasingly environmental oil industry; the best in the world. These people relies on oil, but instead of supporting our own industry to do better, they demonize and attack them, hoping to shut them right down. Please, do NOT support this woman, or any of the others who are heavily influenced by America.

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