In Spring of 2012, at the tail end of my time teaching in Lawrence, Kansas, I had the privilege of attending the Rights of Mother Earth Conference at Haskell Indian Nations University. I’d found my way to Haskell via the Wetlands Preservation Organization, where I fought alongside Haskell students and faculty and non-Indigenous residents of Lawrence, KS, to halt a highway expansion that would (and eventually did) cut through the campus’s wetland systems. These wetlands were of deep spiritual, historical, and ecological significance to Haskell—once part of the genocidal Indian Boarding School system and now a flagship multi-tribal university and global center for the recovery of Indigenous languages and lifeways.
Organized by Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN), the 2012 Rights of Mother Earth conference was the first North American gathering to explore and continue the work begun just a couple years before in Cochabamba, Bolivia, at the World’s People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth.
As explained at the time by Tom B.K. Goldtooth of IEN:
In April 2010, a historical moment occurred. More than 32,000 people, including Indigenous Peoples, social movements, small farmers and some world governmental leaders, converged in Cochabamba, Bolivia for the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth. Two outcomes of this conference were the Cochabamba Peoples Accord and the Universal Declaration on the Rights of Mother Earth.
The Accord and Declaration gave voice to peoples of the world experiencing the effects of climate chaos and its many accompanying issues, including depletion of freshwater and other natural resources and the problems of food security, poverty and environmental crises, along with the financial meltdown within the United States and globally.
During the Cochabamba world conference, President Evo Morales of Bolivia officially proposed that the United Nations adopt a declaration that recognizes that Nature or “Mother Earth” has certain inherent rights that we humans must respect and defend. The adoption by the United Nations and national and local governments of the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth would expand the class of holders of legal rights and would initiate a global process of transformation.
Our prophecies and teachings tell us that life on Mother Earth is in danger and is coming to a time of great transformation. As Indigenous Peoples, we are accepting the responsibility designated by our prophecies to tell the world that we must live in peace with each other and the Earth to ensure harmony within Creation. …
Alliances are being formed, globally of Indigenous and non-indigenous groups and individuals committed to creating a system of jurisprudence that sees and treats nature and Mother Earth as a fundamental, rights-bearing entity.
A paradigm based on Indigenous thought and philosophy needs to be forwarded, which grants equal rights to nature and honors the interrelation of all life.
As both conference and concept, the Rights of Mother Earth had a profound impact on me (click here to see videos of several conference presentations archived by IEN). As concept, “earth jurisprudence” seemed to cleave to the heart of settler-colonial histories of domination, which is the legal and cultural understanding of nature as dead/disenchanted, property or commodity rather than a network of relationships between living beings.
As explained by Carlotta Byrne:
Across the world, the dominant legal paradigm recognises humans as sole subjects of law, objectifying the rest of Nature as inanimate “property” or “resource.”
This false dichotomy is the fault line that runs through modern governance. By objectifying non-human Nature as a commodity, our legal systems legitimise systemic destruction and exploitation of Mother Earth—our life support system—in service to an insatiable death-dealing industrial growth economy.
What if we were to re-envision human laws from an Earth-centred perspective? What if we recognised the Earth as a living community: a communion of subjects rather than a collection of objects?
As I geared up to leave an academic path and return to my home community to root my education in place, I resolved to bring with me the knowledge I’d gained in struggle at Haskell and from the conference. It seemed to me that the work of recognizing the rights of mother earth was already being done in San Antonio, even if people didn’t call it that. But how much more powerful could that work be if we understood ourselves consciously as part of a global movement to shift western legal and conceptual paradigms?
Back home amid a South Texas oil and gas boom, we explored possibilities for a rights of nature approach to local environmental organizing—looking into ordinances passed in Mora County, NM, and other places as models for preventing fracking from encroaching on San Antonio—but the effort lost momentum after the Texas legislature in 2015 outlawed the right of communities to ban fracking within city limits, as the folks in Denton, Texas, had done the year before.
So, a few weeks ago, when we were contacted by local organizers with Center for Democratic and Environmental Rights (CDER) to gauge interest in a webinar on the rights of nature approach, we jumped at the chance to make their analysis more widely accessible.
CDER not only works with “governments, tribal nations, indigenous communities, civil society, and grassroots activists” to recognize the rights of nature within law, but also to strengthen the democratic process which makes this possible (or not), given that “too often the efforts of people and communities to protect nature are blocked or preempted by governmental and corporate entities seeking to protect their power and profits over people and the natural world.”
In this way, the rights of nature are inextricable from what we understand as the “right to the city,” or the right of the residents inhabiting a place to participate in real and meaningful ways in the decisions that affect that place.
As Thomas Linzey, CDER senior counsel who assisted the Ecuadorian government in rewriting its constitution to include the world’s first recognition of ecosystem rights, told Deceleration:
The law’s been very carefully constructed for the past 150 years to stop people from doing anything real in the communities where they live. So this isn’t just about the rights of nature, it’s about democratic authority to control the future of your own community. …
We’re used to the federal government having a bill of rights, we’re used to state government … We’re not used to thinking about municipalities having the ability to adopt these mechanisms or creating their own bill of rights.
So what if San Antonio had a bill of rights? What might it look like? Could it have rights of nature in it, that ecosystems within the city of San Antonio have certain rights? Absolutely. Are you gonna run up against a system of law that says you can’t do it? Yes, you are. It’s a fact.
How do you get through it? Well, you create new jurisprudence. … One way or the other, these strands of thought are combined in one fabric. The rights of nature is dependent on enlarging the portal of municipal authority. … So it’s a democratic movement. It’s not just an environmental movement. It’s really a revolt. By people who are revolting to say the structure of governance is not working any more for us, and we need a new one.
Listen to my full conversation with Linzey and an allied local organizer below.
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