Can Cities Grant Nature the Right to Exist, and Thrive?

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Community rights issues include communities that say, “We don’t want people who live here [being] hauled off by ICE.” But, says O’Dell, there are other legal preemptions saying you can’t locally pass this law.

“People can’t, in their communities, make decisions they want. And if we can’t make them there, where can we make them?” she asks.

“Community rights is about expanding rights,” she continues. “You can’t use this to take away rights [that are] already protected.”

O’Dell sees the community rights issue as necessary to restore power to the people in a democracy — and that it’s corporate capitalism that has rigged the democratic system in their favor. “Why can’t a community expand and say we want to go above [state and federal] regulations? Because the corporation “person” comes in and says that it violates [their] rights,” says O’Dell. “Corporate personhood is a huge problem. [And] we just accept it.”

“We the people are following laws [and regulations] written by corporations for their benefit. It’s greed,” says O’Dell. “They’re using our communities as resource colonies.” The community rights movement is one way communities can take back control.

CELDF points out that community rights are, in fact, the bedrock of the U.S. Declaration of Independence. Colonists dealt with issues of preemption, nature as property, and corporate privilege by declaring their independence. And these issues carried over into new state constitutions.

While not perfect, these new state constitutions took local community self-government seriously,” says CELDF’s website. “Corporations were brought under the control of the communities that they served, and it was understood that the community was the sole and legitimate source of all governing authority.” CELDF has, for nearly 20 years, worked to return this power to the people, getting local bills of rights passed by voters in nearly 200 communities.

Community rights is a growing issue, and the people of Ohio aren’t about to give up. Seven Ohio communities had community rights initiative they were trying to get on the ballot, but their local boards of election worked to keep them off of the ballot, so the people of Athens, Columbus, Medina, Meigs, Portage, Toledo, and Youngstown have filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the state. The first oral arguments are scheduled for late August 2019.

This year marks the five-year anniversary of the first algae bloom that caused the people of Toledo to lose water for days. Despite the victories and ongoing battles, Miller says they continue the work to expose injustice.

“You have to keep pushing the culture forward,” Miller says.

“In America, we do not tell corporations no, because they are people with rights,” says Nancy Ward, Secretary of the Board of the Oregon Community Rights Network. “It’s just so much deeper than the issue itself,” says Ward. “[The question is] do we have a democracy? And if we don’t, how do we [get] one?”

“In general, our members oppose the idea of community rights,” says Cornely. “It’s rights of nature. The idea that a tree or a lake might have the same standing as people, I think most Ohioans don’t necessarily agree with that line of thinking. Do we all agree we need to protect nature? Yes. But is this the right way? I don’t think you’ll find a lot of folks that think it is.”

In Newport, Oregon, a Ban on Aerial Pesticide Spraying

In coastal Oregon, communities have been affected, as they have been in much of the state, by the loss of the timber industry. Newport, with a population of 10,000, is no exception. Timber that once cut through sawmills here is now stripped and shipped to China, where it’s turned into a product and shipped back to Oregon.

Ward says the state is hurting, with many places becoming “sacrifice zones:” They’re economically so depressed that people will do anything for a job, which leads to predatory oil, gas, and other corporate industries coming in to take further advantage of the people, and the land.

Rasler Timber Sale in the Oregon East Coast Range, on Coquille Tribal Land. Newport’s ban of aerial pesticide spraying has not adversely affected the region’s timber industry. (Photo by Francis Eatherington.)

Ward says the need for community rights was clear, because communities in Oregon do not get to make their own decisions. “The [decisions] are made by corporations, state, and federal agencies. The last people consulted are the ones most affected by what they are doing,” she says.

Ward explains the typical process: “After we go and play the regular regulatory game, we go to the meetings, we give our testimony, we beg and plead, and all of them tell us there’s nothing you can do because we need the corporations and they have the rights. We don’t have the right to tell a crude oil company they can’t ship through our county.”

The no’s, says Ward, stack up until people give up and remove themselves, or they become even more heavily invested. “We got tired of beating our head against the wall. We were lucky to find community rights.”

A company might have a permit that allows them to emit, dump, or otherwise pollute, but with community rights and the rights of nature, the community has the right to protect themselves from otherwise legalized harm — and to act on behalf of the natural world, which cannot speak for itself in court.

Here in Newport, the largest city in Lincoln County, the Oregon Community Rights movement has had their biggest success to date. In 2017, the community passed a ban on aerial spraying of pesticides.

Almost immediately, says Ward, a suit was filed against the ban. Though the suit continues, because a vote was involved, the ban is still in effect.

“So there has been no spraying of aerial pesticides in Lincoln County. The timber company hasn’t folded up and gone away. They’ve survived without spraying,” Ward says. “Why is it taking so long for a decision to be made by the judge? She will set precedent if she finds in our favor.”

Fracking and Industrial-Farming Bans: How Pennsylvania Communities Got It Done

Pittsburgh passed a fracking ban in 2010. It’s never been challenged in court, so it still quietly stands.

Elsewhere in Pennsylvania, community rights issues are wrapped up in lawsuits—mostly with state agencies, including the state Attorney General’s office and Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) suing small municipalities. What’s happening in Pennsylvania might even shed light on BP’s anti-LEBOR position in Ohio.

About 90 minutes northeast of Pittsburgh sits Grant Township, with a population of just over 700. In March of 2014, the Grant Township Board of Supervisors voted to adopt a community bill of rightsprohibiting the disposal of oil and gas extraction waste material into injection wells.” The ordinance affirmed the community’s right to self-governance, clean water and clean air. The ordinance was meant to stop local energy company PGE from dumping fracking waste in the community.

Chad Nicholson, Pennsylvania community organizer for CELDF, says Grant is on the frontlines of community rights. It’s “a good snapshot for several reasons: they are small rural poor. And yet they are fighting tooth and nail” against both the state and an energy company.

From left: Bryan Twitchell, John Michael Durback and Markie Miller protest at a Toledo City Council Meeting. The masking tape over their mouths says, “Let Us Vote.” (Photo by Hilary Tore)

So far, Grant Township still has no operational injection well. However, PGE sued the town over the ordinance in 2014. Since that time, in the federal case, Grant Township has been fined more than $103,000 in attorney’s fees, and CELDF’s lawyers were sanctioned $52,000 by the court for making “improper arguments” in defense of the local ordinance.

Since the judge in this initial case said that Grant Township lacked the authority to stop an injection well, in 2015, Grant adopted a home-rule charter. Then, Nicholson explains, backed by the authority of the charter, the community wrote and adopted (by popular vote) a ban on injection wells.

Now, the state Department of Environmental Protection is suing the township for trying to protect its environment, asserting that Grant is inhibiting DEP’s ability to carry out gas policy. “It’s ironic in so many ways,” sighs Nicholson, “that the DEP is suing a community for protecting its environment.”

Despite the various lawsuits, Grant Township did not stop passing ordinances to protect themselves and their community. “If the courts aren’t going to support our rights,” explains Nicholson, “we will allow people to come into our communities to stop the injection wells. We won’t charge people who block roads or [take] other actions to prevent the injection wells.” This ordinance was passed under the authority of the home-rule charter.

“We think people should know they won’t be punished for upholding and protecting the rights of the community,” Nicholson adds. For now, the charter is keeping the injection well out. The charter also allows an emergency town hall meeting, to pass a law banning new threats, in real time, should any emerge.

A bit southeast from Grant Township is Todd, Pennsylvania, where the community passed a ban on industrial factory farms. The large factory hog farm in the community wasn’t happy it was banned, but instead of the company suing Todd, the state AG sued the community. “So it’s the AG doing the work of the industrial farm,” says Nicholson. “It’s not even the farm doing it. It’s an agency paid for with taxpayer dollars.”

Community rights doesn’t just anger corporations, says Nicholson. “It’s pissing off the government.”

“This isn’t a legal issue,” says Nicholson. “This is about a corporate state, and the state and federal governments are aligned with corporations, so the people aren’t just threatened by corporations. They’re threatened by the government.”

Stacy Long, supervisor and vice-chair of Grant Township, Pennsylvania, points out that, despite the potential legal setbacks, she recognizes the fight might take some time — but that a win is inevitable. “There is 200 years of case law that says we were bad,” she says, referring to the precedent of supporting private property and corporate rights. “I think we’re on the side of good.”

Long says the township has no money, with or without the lawsuits. “Grant Township is 700 people, [and] no businesses. People are either elderly or they are on welfare or relief of some sort. They are disabled and dependent on SSI.”

The Fight Wages on

We care about keeping our quality of life and our water safe,” Long says. “Who wants to live in a polluted area? Nobody wants that. We dared to say we don’t.”

The battle for local control of environmental decisions won’t end in Toledo. Or Newport. Or Pennsylvania. Or Bolivia. The health of future generations — the water they drink, their ability to shape and improve the environmental health of their own communities — depends on what they can do today to protect themselves and those to come in the future. The ideological debate over whether nature is merely property, or something more, will also be waged as time goes on.

Toxic algae blooms, says Cornely, are “an incredible problem. Probably no one more so than farmers is frustrated. There is no silver bullet. When we find something that works, we want to implement it. We know the people of Toledo want it fixed. The tourism industry wants it fixed. We’re doing as much as we can as fast as we can.”

“We have battles of rights in court, and it’s person or nature versus corporation, and [right now] the corporation has more rights,” says O’Dell.

“We know what we’re doing is right,” says Nicholson. “And we’re gonna do it. And if the court says we don’t have the right, the courts are wrong.”

O’Dell finds solace in the words of Gandhi: First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win. She says the state is now at the fighting stage in the community rights movement. They’re done laughing. To her, that means they are closer than ever to achieving their goals. “The final step is, we win.”

This content was originally published here.

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