Re-Visioning Our Relationship with the Earth: Lessons from ‘Rights of Nature and Systemic Change in Climate Solutions’

Deeply aware of the crisis of socio-ecologic injustice created by a dominant system that values growth and profit above all else, an extraordinary group of panelist gathered to speak out at ‘Rights of Nature and Systemic Change in Climate Solutions’ in New York City on September 22, 2014. The event, presented by WECAN International and the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature as part of the mobilization surrounding the People’s Climate March and U.N. Climate Summit, focused on the need to redesign our social, political, economic and legal structures to function with respect to the rights of the Earth and the knowledge systems of the original stewards of the land, the worlds indigenous peoples.

Osprey Orielle Lake opening Rights of Nature NY “If our environmental law system was working we would not be in this crisis,” explained Executive Director of WECAN International, Osprey Orielle Lake, in her opening statement. “Our current laws do not stop pollution, they ‘regulate’ it and allow it to continue. We must disrupt this broken framework.”

Tom Goldtooth (Indigenous Environmental Network), Shannon Biggs (Global Exchange), Gloria Ushigua (Association of Sapara Women, Ecuador), Linda Sheehan (Earth Law Center), and Casey Camp-Horinek (Ponca Nation, Indigenous Environmental Network) joined Lake to expose fundamental flaws in our current laws and management schemes, while presenting bold strategies for re-visioning these paradigms. The issue could not be more critical, speakers explained, as a shift to a system that treats the Earth as a rights bearing entity is a requirement for any genuine solutions to the climate crisis.

Rights of Nature Panel NY Church Center

Tom Goldtooth NYTom Goldtooth of the Indigenous Environmental Network took the floor first, focusing on the need to learn from and re-allign with indigenous knowledge systems which conceive of the Earth as a vibrant, living Mother who must be cared for and respected. Tom explained how many climate action plans currently being considered, such as REDD carbon projects and biotechnology schemes, continue to violate the laws of nature and rights of the Earth in attempts to divide, conquer, and profit, ultimately making them false and highly destructive proposals. He emphasized that communities across the globe must reject twisted climate policies which continue to commodify and manipulate, instead coming back to “our true nature of working in harmony with Mother Earth.

Linda Sheehan Earth Law CenterLinda Sheehan of the Earth Law Center spoke next, reaffirming and expanding up Tom Goldtooths sentiment that our plans of action, movements, and policies must function with respect to the Rights of Nature.

According to Linda, our current legal structure overwhelmingly views the Earth as an entity to be traded, exploited, and degraded, leading to the continued failure of environmental law and policy. “We think we can chop up nature, we can control it. This is simply a misunderstanding,” she explained.

Working to challenge this flawed vision, Linda and allies at the Earth Law Center have been working with groups across the U.S. to create and instate new laws that put the rights of the Earth and communities above those of corporations, including notable successes in Santa Monica, California this year.

Gloria Ushigua - Sapara NYFrom the frontlines of the fight to end fossil fuel development in the Amazon Basin, Gloria Ushigua of the Association of Sapara Women, Ecuador shared her story next.

“We are here to defend our rights, our spirits, our forests,” Gloria explained, highlighting the ways that indigenous communities across the world, embedded firmly in a tradition that sees the Earth as a flourishing and living being, are already challenging conventional models and leading the way towards climate solutions

Gloria’s words however, also functioned to shake up the conversation as she explained how, despite the fact that the law in Ecuador officially gives rights to Nature, massive corporate and political violations continue. Thus, she implored, changing our legal framework much be but the first step, to be followed up with ceaseless civil society action to insure that those rights are respected on every level.

Shannon Biggs, Global Exchange  - NY Climate Summit on Rights of NatureShannon Biggs of the Global Exchange spoke next, expanding upon Gloria’s declaration that systemic change in climate solutions and our relationship with the Earth must come not only at the policy level, but at the level of communities and individuals across the globe.

“It all comes down to community, it is up to out communities to be stewards of the land,” Shannon explained, “we must challenge unjust law that says nature is property.”

Shannon continued on to detail the concrete ways that the Global Exchange and its partners are working to expand local ability to implement and enforce the Rights of Nature, focusing on community applications of these principles as tools for climate resiliency and the protection of the Earth.

Casey Camp Horinek-NYCasey Camp-Horinek of the Ponca Nation and Indigenous Environmental Network took the floor as the final presenter of the day. Her speech was one of hope, explaining to the audience that while the task of uprooting and re-visioning the dominant system seem daunting, this is only so when constrained under the false impression that politicians and economists are the center of ultimate power.

“If the sun did not rise today, would you be here? If you did not have a drink of water, would you be here today? THAT is the true power,” Casey explained, the audience erupting in applause.

Following the series of presentations, audience members and speakers engaged in a question and answer session that kept many enthralled in discussion for more than an hour after the official end of the event. Expanding upon earlier discussion surrounding mal-alligned climate policy that seeks to control and subdue nature, Linda Sheehan poignantly remarked, “they call it ecosystem management as is the earth has been unruly. No. We need to regulate ourselves.”

Notebook full of inspiring quotes, bitts of wisdom, strategies, ideas and tools, I set out after the event, eager to return home and start building alliances and making plans to enact the Rights of Nature in my community.

For more information about the Rights of Nature movement, check out: and

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Submitted by and photos by Emily Arasim, WECAN International Special Projects & Communications Coordinator