Citizen Action Monitor

Amazing Legal Defense Fund takes on Big Corporations, declaring Nature has Rights. Pt 1/3: Meet Mari Margil

No 139 Posted by fw, March 23, 2011

Mari Margil

“What I’m about to say should come as no surprise to the people in this room. Our planet is dying. And our communities are dying along with it. By most every measurement, the environment today is in worse shape that when the major US environmental laws were adopted over 30 years ago. Since then countries around the world have replicated these laws, yet species are disappearing, the climate is on fire, rainforests are being destroyed, global fisheries are collapsing, and coral reefs are being wiped out. Clearly something isn’t working.” Mari Margil, the opening of her talk to the Bioneers in San Rafael, CA, October 2009.

How come I haven’t heard of the amazing Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF),  before this? And the equally amazing Mari Margil, CELDF Associate Director?

Never mind. Now that I have heard about them, and learned that they have assisted over 100 communities across the U.S. to draft and adopt laws banning environmentally destructive corporative activities such as fracking, longwall coal mining, factory farming and more, I’m going to make up for lost time. Beginning today, I’ll be featuring their stories on my blog. I’m not sure where this ride will take us, but from what I’ve read and watched so far, it promises to be wonderfully inspiring. So hang on.

Before turning to Part 1 of a three-part video of Mari’s 2009 address to the Bioneers, here’s a brief bio that she sent me:

In 2008, I assisted Ecuador’s constitutional assembly on the re-writing of their constitution to include Rights of Nature.  Prior to joining CELDF, I was the director of corporate transformation for Corporate Ethics International.  I received my Master’s degree in Public Policy and Urban Planning from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.  I’m co-host of the syndicated weekly radio program Democracy Matters and co-author of The Public Health or the Bottom Line published by Oxford University Press in 2010.

Here’s the 7:47-minute Part 1 of Mari’s three videos, followed by my transcript:


“Our planet is dying.”

What I’m about to say should come as no surprise to the people in this room. Our planet is dying. And our communities are dying along with it. By most every measurement, the environment today is in worse shape that when the major US environmental laws were adopted over 30 years ago. Since then countries around the world have replicated these laws, yet species are disappearing, the climate is on fire, rainforests are being destroyed, global fisheries are collapsing, and coral reefs are being wiped out.

Even when CELDF won the legal battles, it lost the wars

Clearly something isn’t working. The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund was founded in 1995 to help communities protect the natural environment by stopping new incinerators, factory hog farms, and other projects. We helped communities appeal to their state environmental agencies to stop them, but what we found was that the very agencies we looked to for help were instead handing out permits to corporations to build those incinerators and factory farms.

The solution is the problem: environmental laws aren’t protecting the environment

We helped hundreds of communities appeal these corporate permits, but, even when we won, we lost because the corporations would either rewrite the law or exhaust communities with permit application after permit application until they could site their project. What our experience showed us was that our system of environmental laws and regulations don’t actually protect the environment. At best they merely slow the rate of its destruction.

New approach needed to protect communities from corporate environmental devastation

After several years we stopped doing that work. We weren’t helping anyone protect anything. And our work has now fundamentally changed. And over the past few years we’ve had a chance to work with folks like Michael Vacca, a construction worker from Western Pennsylvania, who wanted to protect his community from coal mining. Like Jack O’Neal, a Vietnam veteran and Select Board member from Barnstead, New Hampshire, who wanted to stop the privatization of his community’s water. Like Alberto Acosta, former president of the constitutional assembly of Ecuador, who’d seen his country ravaged by multinational oil corporations.

Three people facing three seemingly different problems who found that they couldn’t protect the places where they lived because the environmental laws that they looked to for help seemed to have very little to do with actually protecting the environment. Our work with our communities all began with the phone call.

In 2006 CELDF helps Blaine, PA fight BIG COAL

In 2006 our phone rang with a call from Michael Vacca. Now Michael is grizzled in a way you might expect of someone who spent the past 30 years outside pouring concrete. He lives in the tiny, rural township of Blaine in Western Pennsylvania deep in the heart of coal country. Blaine’s population wouldn’t even fill half this auditorium. Over the past two decades, communities across Western Pennsylvania have been devastated by something called longwall coal mining. Mining corporations drive their longwall machines underground, ripping out massive panels of coal over two miles long. When the coal is gone, the land above is unsupported and caves in. Houses, roads, schools, farmland all fall into the mine. Rivers and streams run dry.

Bold legal approach proposed: Could local zoning laws be used to block mining? Existing laws said “no”

Michael wanted to stop the mining, but had seen other communities fight and lose their battles to stop it. As vice chair of Blaine’s planning commission, he wanted to see if he could use local zoning laws to block the mining. But instead he found himself stuck inside a box – that same box that thousands of communities across the country have found themselves stuck in – in which the law doesn’t give them the legal authority to say “no.”

Back to Democracy School for Blaine’s decision makers to find out why U.S. laws protect corporations but not nature

That first call with Michael lasted two hours. And at the end he invited us to hold a Democracy School in Blaine. The Democracy Schools are three-day workshops at which we help communities examine how our structure of law works, and for whom.

All three elected Blaine supervisors were at the school. Darlene Dutton, one of the supervisors, asked us why it seemed that a mining corporation – in this case, Penn Ridge Coal, headquartered nearly a thousand miles away in Tulsa, Oklahoma – was able to decide what happened in Blaine, rather than the people who actually lived there. She then asked us why the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, was actually giving coal corporations the legal authority to mine, when the devastating impacts from the mining couldn’t have been more clear?

U.S. environmental laws are based on the idea that “nature is property”

These were not easy questions to answer. But they’re being asked more and more as people in communities across the country are finding that they don’t have legal authority to protect that environment. In response to Darlene’s questions, we talked about how our environmental laws work – how they’re based on this idea that nature is property. Meaning our environmental regulatory laws merely regulate the rate at which nature is used.

Which explains why U.S. environmental laws are under the authority of the commerce clause

Knowing this, it’s not so surprising then to learn that our major environmental laws like the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act were passed under the authority of the commerce clause of the US Constitution. That’s treating the environment merely as a natural resource necessary for commerce rather than as ecosystems to be protected in their own right.

U.S. laws treats nature as it once treated slaves — as right-less things to be exploited

Some have compared how the law treats nature as to how we once treated slaves, as a thing to be used until it was no longer. This is because nature is considered “right-less”. And as such the people of Blaine Township in trying to protect nature found that they could not defend the rights of the ecosystems in Blaine because there were no rights to defend.

It took a Civil War to win rights for slaves. What will it take to win rights for nature?

Scott Weiss, chairman of the Blaine supervisors, then asked us about something called “standing” – the legal requirement that you need to prove you have “standing” in order to go to court to protect nature – meaning you’ve experienced some direct harm from logging, or the pollution of a river — meaning you have to prove that destruction of the environment somehow directly injures you. And then damages are awarded to you and not the ecosystem that’s been destroyed. Much like a slave owner could receive monetary damages if someone beat his slave. The slave couldn’t receive damages but the slave owner could. But history shows that with enough will, unjust laws that deny rights can change. Slaves and women were once considered property, but through massive shifts in law and culture they moved from being “right-less” to being rights-bearing.

In Part 2, Mari explains CELDF’s way out of “the box” in which so many communities feet stuck.

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