Environmental law in the U.S. regulates pollution, but often doesn’t protect the things we love. A movement to change that by securing so-called "rights of nature" is taking hold globally – and locally, too.
A group called Legal Rights for the Salish Sea formed last year in Gig Harbor. Their goal is to fundamentally change the law, first by moving away from the idea of nature as property, says co-founder Kriss Kevorkian.
“It’s giving rights to a species, to a river, to a mountain – to say that nature, has the right to thrive, has the right to have a healthy habitat,” Kevorkian said. “We give rights to corporations, to people, even to ships. But we don’t give rights to other living things.”
A trainer from the Community Environmental Defense Fund held a workshop with the Gig Harbor group last year. Kai Huschke says rights of nature are getting traction in several dozen communities in the U.S. and in countries such as Ecuador, India and Columbia.
In Ecuador, where those rights are now enshrined in the constitution, a court ruled in 2011 that a road construction project had to be re-routed because it impinged on the rights of the Vilcabamba River to flow freely.
“And in that particular case the courts agreed that the river’s rights were being violated,” Hushcke said. “And the mandate was that the government restore that ecosystem back to what it was, prior to that road construction project.”
That ruling has led to others around the world. Still, Huschke says the necessary shift in mindset can be compared to the abolition of slavery or beginning of women’s suffrage. It’s a long haul.
The Gig Harbor group is starting with a campaign to establish legal rights for Southern Resident orca whales – which could be defended in court.
A petition on their website is seeking signatures from people in Washington and British Columbia.
Another group in the San Juan Islands is working to amend a county charter to recognize legal rights for the entire Salish Sea. Others are getting started near North Bend and Newport.