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The Battle for Rights of Nature Heats Up in the Great Lakes

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The Lady K tow boat kicks up a wake full of green algae a few hundred feet from the city of Toledo's Water Intake on Lake Erie, for testing on Monday, Aug. 4, 2014. Ty Wright / The Washington Post / Getty Images

By Valerie Vande Panne

In February, the voters of Toledo, Ohio, passed a ballot initiative that gives Lake Erie and those who rely on the lake's ecosystem a bill of rights. The idea is to protect and preserve the ecosystem so that the life that depends on it — humans included — can have access to safe, fresh drinking water.


On the surface, it seems pretty logical: Humans need water to survive, and if an ecosystem that is relied on for water—in this case, Lake Erie — is polluted (in this case, with algae), then the Lake Erie Bill of Rights (or LEBOR) would ensure the rights of humans would come before the polluters (in this case, big agriculture).

Except, that's not what's happening.

Rather, in a perhaps unsurprising move, the state of Ohio has at once both acknowledged rights of nature to exist, and taken them away, with a line written in, of all things, the state budget: "Nature or any ecosystem does not have standing to participate in or bring an action in any court of common pleas."

"It's not surprising that the Ohio legislature has the shameful distinction of being the first in the country to specifically name ecosystem rights — trying to quash them rather than taking the lead in recognizing them," the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), which was involved in the initiative and is experienced with rights of nature laws and actions, said in a press release. The Lake Erie Bill of Rights has received international acclaim.

Last week, a judge ruled Toledoans for Safe Water, the local group behind the Lake Erie Bill of Rights, cannot defend the voter-passed initiative in a lawsuit brought by a factory farm against the city over the initiative. Yet, the state of Ohio is being permitted to support the farm in the lawsuit against the city.

Big agriculture, of course, is the primary source of nutrient pollution that has caused algae blooms that have denied half a million people access to clean, safe drinking water, sometimes for days at a time.

Markie Miller, Toledo resident and concerned citizen with Toledoans for Safe Water, said the new barriers to implementing LEBOR shows the citizens are on to something. "Obviously we're doing something right, because we're scaring the Farm Bureau."

As the lawsuit is set to proceed as of this writing, the judge said there was no need for the two sides (the farm or the city) to file briefs, and would, rather than hold a hearing, have a phone call on May 17. The call would be closed to the public, and without briefs, the public — who passed the initiative by more than 60 percent of the vote — will not have access to the arguments being used.

Meanwhile, according to a recent report released by the United Nations, "one million plant and animal species are on the verge of extinction, with alarming implications for human survival," the Washington Post reported.

The report specifically attributes the die-off to human activity. Worse, it points to an inevitable collapse of the natural world humans rely on for food and water.

"Nature's current rate of decline is unparalleled, and the accelerating rate of extinctions 'means grave impacts on people around the world are now likely,'" reported the Washington Post.

"All the studies say we need drastic action. If we think the courts are going to save the plants or the animals," said Tish O'Dell, Ohio community organizer with CELDF, "they aren't."

O'Dell points to the fact that the people who passed the law aren't part of the lawsuit trying to prevent its implementation, and to the fact that the state of Ohio is intervening on the side of the factory farm, "Not on the side of the people — and denies the people and the lake the right to intervene."

Laws should reflect our values, O'Dell continues. She supports a culture shift to curb the rapid decline of the natural world humans rely on. The change may take time, O'Dell said, saying, "It's like [with] segregation. That lunch counter moment, it wasn't in the courts. It was the pushing and the pushing," that shifted the courts. "That's what we have to do. As we get more and more people saying nature should have rights, doing their own laws and their own actions, it'll start shifting things."

While this shift could take time, we don't have 150 years to push or wait for nature to have the right to exist.

"We talk about climate change. It's climate crisis. In my opinion, they're committing crimes against humanity. It's homicide and ecocide. We have the scientific studies these species will go extinct. It's homicide because humans won't be able to live," O'Dell said. "We need to start getting more blunt about what is happening."

"People think the corporation is the problem," she continued, but cautions against blaming the farming industry or the oil and gas industries for our current situation: "It's your own government that's the problem, because they're protecting them."

It seems, then, we are in a time when corporations are considered people and their rights are preserved, and the rights of people — actual humans — to have access to the single thing they absolutely must have to survive, clean drinking water — are denied.

"If they think they've prevented this movement, all they've done is fired people up," Miller added.

Valerie Vande Panne is a writing fellow and chief correspondent at Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute. She is an independent journalist whose work has appeared in Columbia Journalism Review, In These Times, Politico, and many other publications.

This article was produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

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A volcano erupts on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island on Dec. 9, 2019. Michael Schade / Twitter

A powerful volcano on Monday rocked an uninhabited island frequented by tourists about 30 miles off New Zealand's coast. Authorities have confirmed that five people died. They expect that number to rise as some are missing and police officials issued a statement that flights around the islands revealed "no signs of life had been seen at any point,", as The Guardian reported.

"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island," the police said in their official statement. "Police is working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already."

The eruption happened on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island, an islet jutting out of the Bay of Plenty, off the country's North Island. The island is privately owned and is typically visited for day-trips by thousands of tourists every year, according to The New York Times.

Michael Schade / Twitter

At the time of the eruption on Monday, about 50 passengers from the Ovation of Seas were on the island, including more than 30 who were part of a Royal Caribbean cruise trip, according to CNN. Twenty-three people, including the five dead, were evacuated from the island.

The eruption occurred at 2:11 pm local time on Monday, as footage from a crater camera owned and operated by GeoNet, New Zealand's geological hazards agency, shows. The camera also shows dozens of people walking near the rim as white smoke billows just before the eruption, according to Reuters.

Police were unable to reach the island because searing white ash posed imminent danger to rescue workers, said John Tims, New Zealand's deputy police commissioner, as he stood next to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference, as The New York Times reported. Tims said rescue workers would assess the safety of approaching the island on Tuesday morning. "We know the urgency to go back to the island," he told reporters.

"The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island," Tims added, as CNN reported. "It's important that we consider the health and safety of rescuers, so we're taking advice from experts going forward."

Authorities have had no communication with anyone on the island. They are frantically working to identify how many people remain and who they are, according to CNN.

Geologists said the eruption is not unexpected and some questioned why the island is open to tourism.

"The volcano has been restless for a few weeks, resulting in the raising of the alert level, so that this eruption is not really a surprise," said Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, as The Guardian reported.

"White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years," said Raymond Cas, emeritus professor at Monash University's school of earth, atmosphere and environment, as The Guardian reported. "Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter."

The prime minister arrived Monday night in Whakatane, the town closest to the eruption, where day boats visiting the island are docked. Whakatane has a large Maori population.

Ardern met with local council leaders on Monday. She is scheduled to meet with search and rescue teams and will speak to the media at 7 a.m. local time (1 p.m. EST), after drones survey the island, as CNN reported.