Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon / NASA
Vibrant green filaments of a toxic algae bloom extend out from the northern shore of Lake Erie in 2011. Blooms like these and other threats to drinking water, and lack of action by local and state agencies, have compelled area residents to organize.
Last night, residents of Toledo, Ohio voted in favor of a major breakthrough for the “Rights of Nature” movement. Recognizing legally-enforceable rights for the natural world, the Lake Erie Bill of Rights passed with 61.4 percent of the vote.
Since making it to the February Special Election ballot, the groundbreaking city charter amendment has made national and international news, appearing in The New York Times, CNN, Mother Jones, Bloomberg, as well as The Guardian, Canada’s CBC and the French paper Le Monde. “An Ohio city will vote on whether Lake Erie has the same rights as a person,” read the CNN headline.
Though the Rights of Nature movement has enjoyed sporadic media attention for its gains made in New Zealand, Ecuador, Bolivia, India, and elsewhere, never before has Rights of Nature organizing by non-indigenous residents of the United States gained this level of attention.
Never before has Rights of Nature organizing by non-indigenous residents of the United States gained this level of attention.
Following yesterday’s vote, Markie Miller of Toledoans for Safe Water said in a statement: “We’ve been using the same laws for decades to try and protect Lake Erie. They’re clearly not working. Beginning today, with this historic vote, the people of Toledo and our allies are ushering in a new era of environmental rights by securing the rights of the Great Lake Erie.”
The amendment recognizes rights to “exist, flourish, and naturally evolve” for Lake Erie, and rights to a “clean and healthy Lake Erie and Lake Erie ecosystem” for residents of Toledo. To enforce the rights, local residents are given standing in court to sue corporate polluters on behalf of the lake, and to seek legal damages—which would go toward a city fund to clean up the lake.
Yesterday’s vote came just over two weeks after the the White Earth Band of Ojibwe (part of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe) passed a law recognizing the legal rights of a species of wild rice. They had assistance from the same law firm that worked with local residents in Toledo, the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund.
The tribal law establishes rights for the rice “to pure water and freshwater habitat,” a right not to be infected by genetically modified rice, and gives legal standing to the reservation business committee to sue on behalf of the rice species. It also makes it a crime to violate the rice species rights, and prohibits law enforcement from arresting or detaining “persons directly enforcing these rights.”
The Toledo vote could easily have never taken place.
Toledoans for Safe Water—formed in response to a drinking water crisis caused by a 2014 algae bloom on the lake—collected more than enough signatures to place the Lake Erie Bill of Rights on the November 2018 ballot. The local Lucas County Board of Elections then called a special meeting and decided to remove the charter amendment from last November’s ballot. The Board of Elections’ attorney said the board could refuse to certify a ballot initiative if it thinks the measure is beyond the “constitutional power of the municipality.”
It was a story that has played out annually in Ohio.
Groups with the Ohio Community Rights Network, a statewide group formed largely in response to the fracking and gas pipeline boom in Ohio, have qualified over a dozen similar local initiatives recognizing the rights of local ecosystems. In response, since 2015, local boards of elections, the oil and gas industry, the secretary of state, and the Ohio Supreme Court have provided legal arguments to remove at least eleven of such initiatives from the ballot, despite all of them gathering the required number of signatures.
The Ohio legislature even passed a law to further empower local boards of elections, like the Lucas County Board of Elections, to stop votes from happening. (Earlier this year, members of the Network together with the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the systemic repression of the ordinances.)
The worldwide attention the Toledo law has enjoyed reveals why the power structures with the most to lose are so fearful of these local laws. In Toledo, just before the vote, a group called “Toledo Jobs and Growth Coalition,” began sponsoring radio ads and other messages opposing the Bill of Rights.
The worldwide attention the Toledo law has enjoyed reveals why the power structures with the most to lose are so fearful of these local laws.
Documents showed the group was linked to Strategic Public Partners Group, whose clients include some of the largest corporations and lobbying groups on the planet: Coca-Cola, FedEx, Ohio Chamber of Commerce, Bank of America, Ford, the National Football League, and PhRMA.
The local laws face corporate and state backlash and “preemption.”
Since the network has begun pushing these laws, corporations have argued laws like the Lake Erie Bill of Rights violate their constitutional rights as “persons” under the law, while the state argues the local communities have no such powers to challenge industrial practices which it permits.
This forces the local communities, hell bent on protecting basic human necessities and the vitality of the ecosystems upon which they depend, to directly challenge these legal assumptions. As the Lake Erie Bill of Rights reads:
“Corporations that violate this law, or that seek to violate this law, shall not be deemed to be ‘persons.’ ”
“All laws adopted by the legislature of the State of Ohio, and rules adopted by any State agency, shall be the law of the City of Toledo only to the extent that they do not violate the rights or prohibitions of this law.”
More conventional groups—environmental nonprofits that devote resources to enforcing existing environmental laws—have often shrugged off the Rights of Nature movement as pie in the sky. The laws, their logic goes, won’t stand up in court.
But these critiques miss a major point and strategic calculation of the Rights of Nature movement, which does not see these laws as legal silver bullets, but as political tools to drive more structural and cultural change.
“What Toledo voters and other places working on rights of nature are hoping is to not only change laws but to change culture,” Tish O’Dell, Ohio organizer for the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund told me. “So much of our way of thinking about our relationship with nature has to change. We are not separate from nature but part of nature. Nature is living and that right to thrive, flourish and be healthy needs to be recognized. Nature doesn’t need us to survive but we need nature to survive.”
In New Mexico, where a similar Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund-assisted law was passed in Mora County and challenged in federal court by Chevron in 2014, the Independent Petroleum Association of New Mexico warned against this type of local law driving larger systemic change, calling it “the beginning of a social movement that is greater than just the oil and gas industry, it is a potential game changer for all of corporate America.”