The Full Story

Your body contains more than a pound of plastic and hundreds of  chemical contaminants – and the law sees nothing wrong with that. The air that Americans breathe kills 70,000 annually – and the law is silent about that. Your tap water contains hormones, pesticides and antibiotics – in Alberta, it sometimes contains so much methane that it burns – and the law has nothing to say about that. In West Virginia, coal companies blow the tops off mountains and fill the valleys with rubble – and the law sees no problem with that. 

In the United States, Canada and Australia – and in 13 other countries, including the likes of China, Cambodia and North Korea – government refuses to recognize your right to a healthy environment as a basic human right.  In the other 177 member countries of the United Nations, those rights are recognized in law. More than 100 countries embed those rights in the constitution. 

Does that make a difference? You bet it does. 

In Argentina, slum dwellers represented by lawyer Daniel Sallaberry* sue federal, provincial and state governments and 44 big industries for violating their constitutional right to a healthy environment. Argentina’s Supreme Court rules in their favour and forces governments to crack down on polluters and spend billions of dollars restoring a once-toxic watershed. 

M C Mehta

France becomes the first country in the world to ban hydraulic fracking. Cubatao, Brazil, once among the most polluted cities on Earth, is transformed into a model of ecological recovery – and when Chevron fouls the Brazilian seas, it pays $170 million in fines and restoration charges, while its executives face criminal charges.  In Ecuador, a young lawyer named Pablo Fajardo* wins a $9.5 billion judgment against Chevron for polluting the Amazon rain forest. In India, environmental lawyer M.C. Mehta cleanses the air of New Delhi by forcing city buses to burn cleaner fuels. In the Philippines,  advocate Antonio Oposa* establishes “the Oposa Doctrine” by winning a Supreme Court ruling that the current generation cannot legally prejudice the environmental well-being of future generations. 

Environmental rights bring transformation. And some countries, notably Ecuador and Bolivia, have recognized not only the environmental rights of human beings but also the rights of Mother Nature herself. Ecuador's new constitution – largely inspired by Alberto Acosta* and Natalie Green* --   recognizes that nature is entitled to “respect for its existenceand for the maintenance and regeneration of its life cycles.”

When nature has rights, relationships change fundamentally. Imaginary entities -- corporations, governments, civil society -- are no longer privileged over real entities like forests and animals, the air and the oceans. Property and ownership are redefined. Measurements of well-being move beyond the merely economic. Many of today's "environmental" issues simply resolve themselves.  

All of which brings modern law much closer to the world-view of indigenous people, with their deep reverence for Mother Nature. It is no surprise that the movement for environmental rights is strongest in such South American countries as Ecuador and Bolivia, with their large indigenous populations. Indeed, Bolivia's president, Evo Morales,  is himself of indigenous descent. 

Today,  a growing movement seeks to embed the right to a healthy environment in the legal systems of North America. A powerful global movement calls for a UN-supported, global  Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth, a sweeping 21st century extension of the transformative Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

In Quito, Ecuador, in January 2014, the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature staged the first-ever Tribunal on the Rights of Nature, hearing major environmental cases from around the world. The Tribunal has no official status, no formal jurisdiction – but it represents the first step towards a much-needed International Court of Environmental Justice comparable to the International Court of Justice in The Hague. 

The enshrinement of environmental rights may be the most important single step that human beings can take to reverse humanity's present suicidal course -- and to treat the planet with the reverence it deserves. 

Give me a long enough lever, and I can move the world, said Archimedes. Environmental rights provide us with a lever that can indeed move the world. And that's what the GreenRights project is all about.

 

[People whose names are marked with an asterisk* have already been interviewed at length for this project. We have now obtained all the major interviews for the show. To read an account of the evolution of the GreenRights project, please click here. ]