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Lecture Explores ‘Rights of Nature’ Perspective

Environmental series commences with conversation on global movement in which communities respect and defend their eco-systems. “We’re here to discuss something potentially revolutionary.”

May 31, 2012
Trisha Smith , The Maui Weekly

It's no secret the human race has disrupted the Earth's balance, and our global environments remain in serious distress. Western capitalist markets have infected generations with notions of nature as property, and continue to instill laws that solely protect the property rights of individuals and corporations.

We would like to think each Hawai'i resident feels deeply connected with nature, and that decisions and ethics are based upon what is good for the whole. Yet, problems today still include where and how the money ?ows, not the water.

Our delicate ecosystems are fortunate to have environmental heroes, plus a few of the "good guys" in government and law, that are hopeful and willing to educate communities of progressive efforts working worldwide.

Presented by Ala Kukui and the Maui Arts & Cultural Center and made possible with support by the Hawai'i Tourism Authority and County of Maui, a thought-provoking, four-part series called "Man/Woman and Nature: Restoring the Balance" will take place through November in the McCoy Theater in Kahului.

Located within a rural Hana haven, Ala Kukui ("Pathway of Illumination") is a retreat and gathering place that works as a nonprofit organization. Its mission is personal and global healing transformation. The spiritual center presented the "Rights of Nature" dialogue on Tuesday, May 15, as the first in its speakers' series on key environmental issues focusing on the "need to shift from a philosophy of dominion over nature to one of interpretation and mutual respect."

Moderated by well-respected Maui environmentalist Lucienne de Naie, the presentation included keynote speakers Thomas Linzey of the nonprofit Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF, in Pennsylvania and Kapua Sproat, an environmental law professor at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa and counsel for EarthJustice.

"We're here to discuss something potentially revolutionary," said de Naie.

Linzey, CELDF's cofounder, executive director and chief lawyer, has worked to provide free and affordable legal counsel to communities dealing with threats to their environment, farming, economy and quality of life since 1995. His dedication and efforts have made a miraculous difference in communities ranging from rural Pennsylvania to third-world countries such as Ecuador.

According to Linzey, by recognizing nature's right in its constitution, places like Ecuador--and over 140 other global communities--are basing their environmental protection systems on the idea that nature has inalienable rights, just as humans do. Ecuador was the first country to recognize the "Rights of Nature" language in its constitution to address issues, including deforestation and water pollution.

"These communities are refusing to wait for other people to save them," he said. "The only thing that is going to save you is yourselves."

Familiar faces in Maui's nature advocacy community attended to learn more about this inspirational global movement that works to amend constitutions and introduce laws to codify the rights of the natural world, balancing a relationship between humans and the planet.

"To me, Thomas' 'Rights of Nature' approach is revolutionary, because much of how we've treated nature in the past is as someone's 'property' or something humans/corporations have a 'right to use,'" said Sara Tekula of Plant a Wish, a native tree-planting awareness and documentary film project. "We've overstepped our rights to use nature more than we should have, and we've even misused it a lot it's about time that someone 'speaks for the trees.'"

Growing up on the North Shore of Kaua'i within a family of fisherman and farmers on her ancestors' land, Sproat naturally developed a strong sense of kuleana. She's dedicated herself to protect to the lands she loves, and works passionately as a professor of environmental law and serves as counsel on an array of Native Hawaiian cases. She saw firsthand how the island has changed after the demise of its sugar cane industry, as Kaua'i "stopped growing cane, and started building houses."

Linzey spoke about problems with corporate constitutional rights, how "enforcement, not laws" is the trouble when it came to such places as Pennsylvania, which faces issues regarding factory farms, sewage and hydraulic fracturing (fracking).

"Communities are prohibited from banning legal uses," Linzey explained. "States legalize it through permit issuances and corporations write the regulations."

Linzey and his firm follow the "Rights of Nature" perspective, which recognizes that nature in all its life forms has the "right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles." The movement maintains that people have legal authority and responsibility to enforce these rights on behalf of an ecosystem, which itself can be named as a defendant.

"The river is invisible to the courts now, though," he said. "This movement can create new forms of local control, recognizing that streams, rivers, forests, etc., have rights of their own."

Sproat discussed how "Hawai'i is different" and uses public trust principles in many cases, viewing the land as indigenous property and "part of the extended family." "It's not enough, though, to just do the permits," she said.

Sproat called for more action in Hawai'i, "true successors" who fight for the perpetuity of the land. "It's not a perfect system, as we know," said Sproat. "We have had success blocking some projects and corporate interests, but we need to work harder."

"While we may have protected them from future development, and even establish ongoing stewardship practices to rehabilitate the land, that is about the extent of what we've been able to do," said Tekula regarding Maui's living ecosystems.

Learn more in next week's issue of the Maui Weekly regarding the battles communities face with corporations when trying to implement the "Rights of Nature" perspective, and how concerned citizens can "provoke the right kinds" of fights right here on Maui.

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