The following is an excerpt from the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund’s End of Year 2020 newsletter “Moments of Transition.” Email to receive a hard and/or electronic copy of our newsletters.

The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund was founded as a conventional environmental law firm (phase one). As it discovered how regulatory law is fixed to disempower people, communities and ecosystems, it pivoted—towards “rights-based” lawmaking. Instead of assisting communities in appealing pollution permits, CELDF went on offense and began helping communities make proactive declarations of law to prevent corporate harm while targeting some of the most regressive and reactionary legal doctrines practiced in the world’s most powerful nation (phase two).

These “rights-based” laws began to evolve. Eventually, CELDF began to advise its client communities in drafting and defending the first “Rights of Nature” laws on non-indigenous reservation land (phase three). At the time, it was a revolutionary concept; as was the defense of basic self-determination to override the power and privileges of corporate interests.

As we observe a dramatic rise in interest and support for overturning these oppressive legal systems, we also observe how different organizers and movements come at these issues from different perspectives, and utilize unique language.

CELDF was years ahead of the curve on these two complementary principle issues: Rights of Nature and a structural demand for local community self-determination to counteract corporate power. For decades, our staff spearheaded these issues, when few others would.

Now, these core demands have become visible demands within mass movements across the globe. Led by indigenous organizers and communities, the global Rights of Nature movement has taken off—we have played an important role by pushing decolonial concepts in the communities we work. Meanwhile, when it comes to local self-determination, we have raised awareness of the doctrines that control local communities against the interests of people and nature for decades—doctrines like “state preemption,” “Dillon’s Rule,” corporate “rights/personhood” and the regulatory fallacy. That awareness has skyrocketed in the past few years. Across the United States, social, environmental and economic justice movements have now identified these doctrines as structural impediments to a more just and sustainable society.

Similar movement developments have taken place in other countries in recent years. Law schools and political science departments are studying the implications. It’s clear we are not alone.

As we observe a dramatic rise in interest and support for overturning these oppressive legal systems, we also observe how different organizers and movements come at these issues from different perspectives, and utilize unique language.

There are a multitude of different ways to decolonize the law (including, but not limited to, recognizing the rights of ecosystems) and increase local self-determination. Indigenous legal scholars and organizers are advancing and practicing pre-colonial legal paradigms; indigenous peacemakers are preserving healing and justice practices that possess enforcement power; youth climate strikers are demanding indigenous self-determination and Rights of Nature; Black-led demands for multiracial local self-determination compliment the Movement for Black Lives’ demand for more community control; grassroots climate organizers articulate translocal organizing strategies; municipal officials fight centralized takeovers of their governments and school districts; coalition building counters state interference in protective municipal policy making; rural-urban solidarity is cultivated to defend local democracy.

The validity of the root demands of our work—that a dramatic transformation of tyrannical legal doctrines is needed to empower people and planet over profit, and a re-localization of protective political power is necessary to establish justice—is proven by how they are resonating with a multitude of emancipatory movements. All are coming to similar conclusions.

As we continue to advance constitutional change and local organizing, including community law making, we look forward to playing another role: that of truth-teller and convenor of people who embody the true radical visions that Rights of Nature and life-affirming local self-governance portends. However, as these topics gain broader acceptance, there is risk that their radical potential will be watered down. We can’t let that happen. For this reason we need a visioning process that weaves different understandings of these core demands together to guard against them being co-opted or hijacked as they gain in popularity.

That’s why we helped compile statements in response to the Democratic National Committee’s Council on Environment and Climate Crisis when it released an “Environmental and Climate Policy Agenda for the Democratic Party” in August 2020. It recommended the formation of a presidential Rights of Nature mission that would:

“Establish a commission, similar to the President’s Council on Sustainable Development, to explore incorporating Rights of Nature principles into U.S. law.”

This recommendation did not make it into the final party platform, but nonetheless is proof of Rights of Nature’s growing popularity. Read the statements on our website (“Democratic Party Must Not Water Down Rights of Nature”). We also issued a statement on a problematic “Rights of Nature” passed in Orange County, Florida.

We must accelerate our work to keep up with the climate crisis. CELDF is in a moment of transition, the beginning of a FOURTH phase, where we find our work coalescing with other, broader movements, as we innovate new tools and strategies (including Rights of Nature laws) for reaching the movement goals and continue to help organize the unorganized. We are excited about the new relationships and collaborations, a new collective internal structure, new movement building, increased media presence, and the rest of what is to come.

Additional Resources