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Indigenous Leaders Call for Radical Shift In Consciousness

The Rights of Nature movement has advanced alongside global environmental concern

by Josef Reisenbichler

November 28, 2018


It’s no new PSA that the earth’s climate is in a pressing state of urgency, one that requires our undivided, collective attention. The human-caused, catastrophic effects of climate change and other environmental pollution are already well underway: scientists predict that heat waves, wildfires, and rising sea levels will affect communities on a global scale, and nearly half of the world’s species will become extinct. The news cycle  reminds us of our past ability to prevent, stop, and then reverse climate change — in which decisions makers and institutions trumped the cold, hard facts of science in lieu of fossil fuels and plastics.

It leaves many of us asking: where do we go from here?

The non-profit NEXUS explored this topic in its 8th annual Global Summit this past summer. Businesspeople, artists, CEOs, philanthropists, investors and indigenous leaders gathered around the theme Next Generation Solutions for a World in Transition, and concluded that a radical shift in consciousness will be needed to protect the future of the environment.

Enter the Rights of Nature movement.

The Rights of Nature concept argues that like civil and human rights, nature is also endowed with rights to exist, thrive and evolve. It also recognizes the human right to a healthy planet. Long  known in Indigenous cultures, the movement has recently garnered more urgent attention among theorists, philosophers, and scientists. As Rachel Carson wrote in her seminal book Silent Spring: “The ‘control of nature’ is a notion conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man.’’ Carson affirmed that human activity affects the natural ecosystem because we are a part of nature. So it goes that harming natural ecosystems and wildlife, in effect, harms ourselves. And when we come to realize that we are a part of nature—not above or separate—we can awaken with new consciousness that reconnects us to nature and compels us to be stewards of the earth.

In his book The Voice of the Earth, ecopsychologist Theodore Roszak writes that “the needs of the planet are the needs of the person, the rights of the person are the rights of the planet.” He also contends that the conventional approach to environmentalism may be shortsighted. Scaring and shaming tactics have been pushed to their limits and the new hope of saving the planet may require a more spiritual—even religious—approach in order to change global perceptions,attitudes, and actions toward the natural world.

These eco-psychological concepts have evolved over time and are inherent in the environmental movement. It is widely recognised that environmental degradation is the pressing issue of our time: 97 percent of scientists agree that the climate is changing at an alarming rate, primarily due to human activity, from our continued reliance on fossil fuels, plastic pollution, the meat and dairy industries and auto emissions. And even more alarming is the lack of action being taken to tackle this urgent issue.

“Nature is viewed as property so corporations can exploit the Earth’s natural resources and even use the air, water and land as their dumping ground with no consequence, because nature has no rights,’’ said Mari Margil, a leader of the International Center For the Rights of Nature of CELDF (Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund).

The non-profit, public interest law firm spearheaded the first Rights of Nature community laws in the United States by taking on an oil and gas company to stop wastewater injection. Since then, the movement has grown into a community, legal and global initiative, encouraging people around the world to reconnect not only with nature, but with their inner selves and minds.

Also among the participants at the Nexus Global Summit were council leaders of indigenous nations around the world, including Alexis Bunten of the Bioneers Indigeneity Program, who headed the panels throughout the event; and Domingo Peas of the Achuar Nation in Ecuador, who coordinates the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon(CONFENAIE), which represents 11 nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon. With the Amazon Sacred Headwaters Initiative, Domingo works to advance indigenous rights, as well rights for Mother Earth in the Ecuadorian and Peruvian basins.

The struggle for indigenous rights correlates with the rights of nature, and the environmental movement in general. Rights for Mother Earth are included in recognizing tribal sovereignty, as it has always been within tribal traditions to respect the earth. “Amazon nations have no word for nature,” said Atossa Soltan, founder of Amazon Watch. For nature is not below or separate in its way of life. The forest is alive like humans. Rivers have personhood. Therefore, the rights of nature requires indigenous solutions with indigenous leaders who can educate and build leadership. Solutions require environmental organizations assign these roles to local and international tribal communities. One who has taken the lead is Deon Ben, a member of the Navajo Nation, who has focused on incorporating Indigenous science and traditional ecological knowledge within tribal communities. Managing the Colorado Plateau Intertribal Conversation (CPIC) of the Grand Canyon Trust, Ben works with the twelve tribes of CPIC who are initiating rights of nature in the Colorado Plateau and are tribal-led.

“The rights of nature is fundamentally an indigenous worldview,” said Manape LaMere, a government representative of the Sioux Nation of Indians.

So, how does does one incorporate rights of nature into lifestyle, and support indigenous leaders in their efforts?

“Ask what you are doing,” says Atossa. “Study what is nature. Study what is life. If we can see nature’s genius, we can learn to revere nature. Learning how the earth works, we can see its grand intelligence. It starts in education, within families. Communities work as an ecosystem.”

As communities worldwide face different impacts of environmental deterioration, from fossil fuel development and climate catastrophes, incorporating constitutional rights of nature into law may be practical for some, but overall could be the final step in taking bold action and transforming our perceptions and personal growth. To comprehend that nature has the right to a healthy existence, we might need to rewild ourselves,reconnect with our natural surroundings, remember to respect all life in the wilderness, large and tiny, and align ourselves to our own nature.

The recognition of the value of life in nature is a recognition of the value of our life.