As politicians, business leaders and environmentalists pitch their own solutions to climate change — or deny its existence altogether — a growing network of activists is taking an alternative approach to saving the environment: giving legal rights back to nature. The Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature (GARN), a network of organizations, leaders and individuals from more than 100 countries, is pushing for legal systems to recognize natural ecosystems as having rights just like humans.
Indigenous people around the world have followed these ideals for millennia, according to GARN. They've prospered and protected Earth while doing so. That's why GARN says it's time for the rest of the world to catch up.
How Do 'Rights of Nature' Work?
"The ecosystem itself can be named as the injured party, with its own legal standing rights in cases alleging rights violations," according to the GARN website. In places like Ecuador, which is the first country to recognize Rights of Nature in its constitution in 2008, this means nature has the "right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles," according to GARN. Under the constitution, environment supporters have the legal authority to push for the ecosystems' rights, with nature itself becoming the defendant.
But Ecuador isn't the only place pushing for nature's rights. In 2010, the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth was adopted by Bolivia. The statute requires the people to "uphold and respect the rights of Mother Earth."
And like Ecuador and Bolivia, numerous other cities, foundations and activists are joining in to recognize nature's inherent rights. One of those is in Toledo, Ohio, where rights of nature gained major strides when a small group of locals fought to give Lake Erie its own rights: the Lake Erie Bill of Rights. This bill started with a handful of Toledoans who were fed up with the pollution and improper treatment of Lake Erie. The group made history with the passage of the United States' first law to recognize an ecosystem's right to exist, flourish and evolve — although getting there was anything but easy.
Lake Erie's Troubled Past
On Aug. 2, 2014, Toledoans woke up to a nightmare: no clean water. Toxins from an algal bloom in Lake Erie left half a million Toledoans without water for three days, according to the Alliance for the Great Lakes. Not only was the water unsafe to drink, it wasn't safe for locals to even touch thanks to the blooms likely caused by agricultural runoff pollution.
"We couldn't drink, bathe, prepare meals — you don't really know what to do with that information," says longtime Toledo resident Markie Miller. After just one day, even bottled water wasn't available in stores; residents had to cross state borders to get water. "You realize how much you rely on your tap water; it just shut down our city."
When the crisis passed, Miller attempted to get answers at town hall and public meetings. She wanted to know what Toledo was doing to prevent future disasters. "We were told not to ask about what caused the crisis. We were only supposed to talk about where we go from here," she says.
That's when she changed course. Miller, then in her late 20s, started attending local meetings where a group of fed-up citizens — soon named Toledoans for Safe Water.
"Everything clicked for me," Miller says. "The government had created loopholes; we were really just giving a free pass for corporate pollution. If we kept on this way, we were never going to get anywhere." The citizen group talked, planned and spent years preparing. Then in 2016, it was time to rally locals for petition support.
The Lake Erie Bill of Rights Is Born
Citizens were intrigued by the LEBOR. It was designed to "allow residents to bring lawsuits on behalf of Lake Erie instead of depending on state government or regulatory agencies," according to a Toledoans for Safe Water press release. This would be particularly valuable for issues like pollution or invasive species, according to Cleveland.com.
For Miller, the bill was all about positioning and protecting Lake Erie as a vital resource. With more than double the number of signatures needed to get LEBOR on the ballot, it was obvious fellow Toledoans agreed.
"It's a life support system that has to be protected, and we can only do that by having enforceable rights that we get to protect," she says.
Miller and the Toledoans for Safe Water organizers knew this was simply the first step; actually getting from petition to a vote wouldn't be easy. After corporate protests that delayed voting and a $300,000 anti-LEBOR campaign, according to Miller, LEBOR passed by 61 percent in early 2020.
LEBOR Passes and Then Is Shot Down
Of course, Miller knew the victory wouldn't last. "We had about 12 hours to celebrate our win in court before an industrialized agriculture company filed a lawsuit against the city of Toledo," she says. The company argued that this law was detrimental to their business.
LEBOR supporters rallied and protested to keep this local charter amendment alive, but in late February 2020, federal judge Jack Zouhary deemed the bill unconstitutional. "This is not a close call. LEBOR is unconstitutionally vague and exceed the power of municipal government in Ohio," he wrote.
Miller and the Toledoans for Safe Water team anticipated a negative outcome; that's why they reframed their definition of success early on. "You have to redefine what it means to win," Miller says. "The more confrontation you create, the more you cause these changes can come about. People have to start confronting the ideas and laws."
And, according to Miller, they are. Following Toledo's push for the LEBOR, the rights of nature movement is expanding rapidly across states like Hawaii, Florida and Washington. Miller — who was once shy and fearful of public speaking — spoke to the United Nations about LEBOR on Earth Day in 2019. Her team's tenacity and progress are inspiring other states to jump on board for Lake Erie. In New York State, assemblyman Pate Burke of Buffalo started pushing for a similar Lake Erie Bill of Rights in March, according to Cleveland.com. This just may just be the beginning of something big.
This story is a part of Covering Climate Now's week of coverage focused on Climate Solutions, to mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Covering Climate Now is a global journalism collaboration committed to strengthening coverage of the climate story.