Giving Nature Constitutional Rights

Published by Yes! Magazine on March 2, 2010

Simply regulating pollution will never really stop it. Mari Margil of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund discusses why we need a fundamental change in the way we use law to protect nature.

The environmental movement, with its army of professional advocates, lawyers, grassroots campaigners, and dedicated funders, has been around for decades. Yet nearly every biological indicator shows a planet in crisis—and poised to unravel faster as climate change disrupts already-shaky ecosystem functions.

Mari Margil, associate director of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) believes it’s time for different tactics. The nonprofit agency used to work within the body of existing environmental law—helping impacted residents file lawsuits or appeal corporate permits—to protect communities from environmental damage. But a series of blocked efforts, often made worse by the very agencies meant to protect the environment, convinced the group that more fundamental changes were necessary.

“Our system of environmental laws and regulations don’t actually protect the environment,” says CELDF’s Mari Margil. “At best, they merely slow the rate of its destruction … We weren’t helping anyone protect anything.”

The organization has since changed its goals, working with citizens from all over North and South America to literally rewrite local laws in ways that allow people to speak up for their communities, watersheds, forests, and air.

According to Margil, anemic environmental laws spring from the fact that nature has no constitutional rights. CELDF has taken a local approach to reversing this structural blind spot, drafting ordinances for townships from New England to Pennsylvania to Washington State that:

  • Give communities legal authority to say “No” to unwanted corporate activities;
  • Recognize the rights of nature;
  • Strip corporations of their constitutional rights.

In one landmark victory, the town of Barnstead, New Hampshire, voted 135 to 1 to ban the privatization of their freshwater by encroaching corporate interests—the first community in the nation to do so. Other towns have followed, stripping corporations of the rights of personhood and recognizing the rights of communities to self-govern. In 2008, with legal advice from CELDF, Ecuador recognized the right of nature to exist and persist in its national constitution.

Mari Margil Addresses Bioneers Conference

This video was produced by Bioneers, a nonprofit organization that provides a forum and hub for social and scientific innovators.

Communities Take on Corporate Power
People across the country are taking our founding documents at their word, declaring citizens’ right and duty to protect nature and community.

This article is licensed under a Creative Commons License

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One Response to “Giving Nature Constitutional Rights”
  1. depelton says:

    After hearing water-warrior Maude Barlow mention the concept of “wild law” in an interview with Laura Flanders for GritTV, I found this essay:

    “Wild Law: the New Jurisprudence”


    “Wild Law, the acknowledgement in law and governance that nature and all its elements have rights, is a concept whose time has come, and you’ll likely be hearing more about it from now on. Remember how suddenly the Iron Curtain came down, despite how solidly it had been in place for almost 50 years? And remember how the entrenched apartheid system in South Africa ended so abruptly? Many people struggled for decades, but when the world was finally ready for a paradigm shift, it happened quickly.

    With global warming waking up even those previously in deep denial about the dire state of the environment, the embrace of wild law may be the next paradigm shift.”

    “Wild law recognizes the rights of rivers to flow unimpeded, the rights of mountains to remain intact instead of having their tops blown off for coal mining, the rights of old growth forests to remain unlogged, and the rights of all humans, animals, birds, insects amphibians and other beings to a habitat that supports their existence. Wild law requires that decisions made by communities, governing bodies, courts or other social or cultural authority adhere to, rather than violate, these rights. Wild Law does not place humans above other members of the “Earth Community,” as visionary Thomas Berry puts it. It is ecocentric (Earth-centered) rather than anthropocentric (human-centered). If we make the paradigm shift, we will enter what Berry calls the “Ecozoic Era,” taking our rightful place in the Earth Community instead of attempting to rule it.”

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