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Earth Defenders Warn Against Democrats Undermining 'Rights of Nature' Movement With Watered-Down Approach

The fresh push for recognizing ecosystems as rights-bearing entities comes as the documentary film Invisible Hand premieres worldwide.

This scene from the new documentary film Invisible Hand was recorded at Standing Rock, North Dakota. (Photo: Invisible Hand/Flickr)

This scene from the new documentary film Invisible Hand was recorded at Standing Rock, North Dakota. (Photo: Invisible Hand/Flickr)

Ahead of the Friday night global premiere of Invisible Hand—which its creators are calling the world's first documentary film on the Rights of Nature movement—some U.S. campaigners fighting to grant ecosystems legal status as rights-bearing entities welcomed the Democratic Party's recent gestures toward their demands but warned against watering down the movement's vision.

"Rights of Nature is deep system change, not tinkering at the margins of a rigged system."
—Pennie Opal Plant, Movement Rights

As the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) explained in a recent video, "Rights of Nature is honoring and recognizing that nature has the right to exist, flourish, and thrive." The movement advocates for fundamentally rethinking the current treatment of nature as property that landowners or corporations are legally entitled to pollute and destroy.

"Now we're not talking about giving every tree a lawyer," noted the video from CELDF, which supports treating ecosystems as living communities. "We're talking about creating a guardianship so that ecosystems can be seen in court as more than just a place to stick the next future Superfund site—and this idea isn't new, it's been around for millennia."

In a Friday statement from CELDF, advocates detailed developments this year in U.S. politics, highlighting that in June the Democratic National Committee Council on the Environment and Climate Crisis included in its 2020 platform recommendations creating a Rights of Nature commission like the President's Council on Sustainable Development to explore incorporating the movement's principles into U.S. law.

Although the final platform—which disappointed climate and environmental campaigners on various fronts—didn't include the panel's commission proposal, organizer Markie Miller said Friday "the fact that the DNC is contemplating this is a testament to the bravery of local communities willing to take action."

Miller, a Toledo resident, was involved with the Lake Erie Bill of Rights effort. The Ohio city ultimately allowed the historic legislation to die in court this May, but the measure still garnered international acclaim as "the first law on United States settler colonial land to recognize the rights of a specific ecosystem," according to CELDF.

"We cannot lose track of the fact that grassroots organizers are pushing this conversation, and the creative approaches to new governance," Miller emphasized. That message, and concerns that a commission created by Democratic leadership would be "sanitized for the political system," were shared by several other Rights of Nature advocates.

While some members of the movement welcome the party's partial embrace of the Rights of Nature push, many also remain concerned that Democratic politicians could diminish the legal arguments or co-opt aspects of the political fight.

"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," explained Pennie Opal Plant, co-founder and Indigenous Program director of Movement Rights. She continued:

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.

Mililani Trask, an attorney and leader in the Hawaiian sovereignty movement, warned that such commissions can "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."

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Trask added that if Democrats decide to launch a Rights of Nature commission in the future, they must remain committed to grassroots organizers' demands and "engage a deep outreach campaign," underscoring the importance of involving Indigenous Hawaiians, Alaska Natives, and Indian Nations.

Diane St. Germain—an advocate for a first-in-the-nation 2008 law that barred corporate water extractions in Barnstead, New Hampshire—denounced the DNC's interest in establishing a commission as "disingenuous," charging that its failure to "challenge the corporate stranglehold on policy is evident in omissions from the platform."

Even some Democrats, such as New Hampshire State Rep. Ellen Read, who sponsored state constitutional amendment efforts to empower municipalities to recognize the rights of local ecosystems, worry "there is a pro-corporate element in the party structure itself that may seek to either water down, or worse, pervert this push."

"We need real Democratic leadership that understands the well-being 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, United Houma Nation

"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," Read said. "Although I commend the DNC for taking up the issue of Rights of Nature, past experience has taught me to be wary."

Despite concerns about intentions and potential consequences of Democratic policymakers backing the movement, Monique Verdin, a citizen of United Houma Nation who is involved with the grassroots collaborative Another Gulf Is Possible, declared that "we are at a time when the Rights of Nature must be centered and can no longer be ignored."

Verdin said that "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 well-being 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," she added.

Rights of Nature advocates' commentary on the Democratic Party preceded the 6:00 pm ET online premiere of Invisible Hand, which executive producer Mark Ruffalo said aims to show "how to fight the forces that put profit above all else while addressing the root cause of our flawed system."

"Our legal system is rigged to commodify Nature, to favor private property above Life," said Invisible Hand co-writer and director Melissa Troutman. "It's a system that makes it perfectly legal to harm innocent people without their consent and threaten the survival of the planet."

The film "is about witnessing the elephant in the room before it's extinct," according to co-writer and director Joshua Pribanic. "It's showing us that, when face-to-face with the harmful effects of capitalism and our current way of life, Rights of Nature becomes the battle cry. My hope is that wherever you are, this film can speak to your fight."

Ruffalo, Troutman, Pribanic, and experts featured in the film are set join a public discussion immediately after the Friday screening. Tickets, which cost $1 for Public Herald patrons or $15 on PayPal and are available to the public, can be purchased at Invisiblehandfilm.com.

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