Citizen Action Monitor

Amazing Legal Defense Fund takes on Big Corporations, declaring Nature has Rights. Pt 2/3: A way out of “the box”

No 140 Posted by fw, March 23, 2011

Continuing with Part 2 of Mari Margil’s talk to the Bioneers in October 2009, followed by my transcript:


Blaine’s ordinances

At the conclusion of the school, the Blaine supervisors asked us to help them draft a set of ordinances that would ban longwall coal mining while declaring that ecosystems have rights within Blaine township. Passed unanimously by the supervisors in 2006, the ordinances do three things:

    • First, they ban corporations from mining;
    • Second, they recognize the rights of ecosystems; and
    • Third, they strip corporations of their power to override those ecosystems and those ordinances.

First, in support of the ban on mining, the ordinances declare “that the Department of Environmental Protection’s enabling of mining corporations has not been the exception in this state and nation, but a normal governmental practice.”

Second, the ordinances establish that ecosystems – including wetlands, rivers, and streams – possess “inalienable and fundamental rights to exist and flourish within the township of Blaine.” And that the people of Blaine have the ability to defend the rights of ecosystems without having to prove standing, and that damages are to be measured by harm caused to the ecosystem itself.

Lastly, the ordinances strip corporations of something called ‘corporate constitutional rights’. Corporations, declared by the courts to be persons under the law, enjoy 1st amendment free speech rights, 5th amendment rights to due process, and 14th amendment rights to equal protection.

Why corporate constitutional rights matter

At the Blaine Democracy School, the supervisors asked us why corporate constitutional rights matter. Our answer was that they matter because corporations are able to use these rights against you, against communities and laws that seek to protect the environment.

Those constitutional rights guarantee that corporations can lobby congress to let them build new coal-fired power plants. They use them to protect their right and ability to siphon off our water for longwall coal mines. They use them to stop us from doing anything in our activism that will actually change how the system of law works.

Blaine flipped the law on its head — use the law to protect the rights of people, communities, nature

In many ways, what the people of Blaine were doing was flipping the law on its head – so instead of the law protecting the rights of property and commerce, they were using the law to protect the rights of people, communities, and nature.

BIG CORP did what BIG CORP does when challenged — IT SUED

With thoughts about what happens when people start to reject the systems of law they’re living under. What happened when the early abolitionists began to organize? They were declared treasonous and every effort was made to shut them down. When the suffragists fought for rights for women, they were arrested and called radicals. How those who feel threatened by change will do everything they can to stop it.

And in Blaine township, that would be the mining corporations. And as expected, last fall two coal corporations sued Blaine township to overturn their ordinances. They’re arguing that the community doesn’t have the legal authority to ban mining, and that the ordinances violate their corporate constitutional rights.

Blaine ups the ante — adopts a home rule municipal charter

Instead of backing down or counting on the courts to save them, the people of Blaine have decided instead to up the ante. They drafted a home rule municipal charter incorporating the Rights of Ecosystems and stripping corporations of constitutional rights. The home rule charter constitutionalizes the ordinances, and, if adopted, it will become the nation’s first local sustainability constitution.

Meanwhile, Barnstead, NH and Nottingham, PA were fighting to protect their water

Like Blaine, the town of Barnstead, New Hampshire, is rural, and largely conservative. What they faced there wasn’t mining of coal, but of water. Companies like Nestle are targeting communities across the country for their water. Just up the road from Barnstead, USA Springs Corporation had set its sights on the town of Nottingham. The company sought a permit from the state to withdraw over 400,000 gallons of water a day to bottle and sell overseas.

Nottingham played by the rules but couldn’t win because the game was rigged

The people of Nottingham have fought for 7 years to stop USA Springs from coming in and privatizing their water. They appealed permits to the state Department of Environmental Services, they circulated petitions, they lobbied their state legislature, they held protests and they files lawsuits. They did everything right through conventional environmental organizing but somehow they still weren’t winning.

Down the road at a Barnstead Democracy School, Jack O’Neal, a member of the town Select Board asked us why the state environmental agency seemed to him to be more interested in granting corporations permits to take their water than helping people in the community protect it.

The corporate “fix” has been in for more than 100 years

It turns out – as we cover in the Democracy Schools – there is a reason why that is. Over a hundred years ago the first regulatory agency, the Interstate Commerce Commission, was created at the request of the railroad corporations – the Wal-Marts of their day. As the US Attorney General, Richard Olney told the president of Burlington Railroad, back in 1893, “[The [Interstate Commerce] commission, as its functions have now been limited by the courts] is, or can be made, a great help to the railroads. It satisfies the public clamor for a government supervision of railroads, at the same time that that supervision is almost entirely nominal.” He went on to say that the agency acts as “a sort of barrier between the railroad corporations and the people.” As one Barnstead resident put it, “It seems as though nothing has changed in over a hundred years.”

Barnstead rejected Nottingham’s “play-by-the-rules” approach, opting instead for an ordinance

To the folks in Barnstead it seemed that if they took the path of Nottingham, it was only a matter of time before a corporation came along and took their water. Because of that, Jack O’Neal and the other Select Board members asked us to draft an ordinance that would ban corporations from coming in and siphoning off their water, and, which offered the best and highest protection for their aquifer.

They also wanted the ordinances to strip corporations of their ability to override the community’s lawmaking. We worked hand-in-hand with them to draft an ordinance and, like Blaine’s, the Barnstead ordinance recognizes that ecosystems have legally enforceable rights, bans certain corporations from carrying out activities the community doesn’t want, and, lastly, strips corporations of constitutional protections.

In Part 3, Mari asks The Lorax’s question: “Who speaks for the trees?”

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