The following is the last half of a two part series written by Hannah Zucherman about her experience working as the Community Rights Program intern at Global Exchange this summer. Hannah will be starting her third year at Sonoma State University next week.

As my internship at Global Exchange is coming to a close, I feel like I have become more informed as to how U.S. law is wielded, how decisions are really made in our society, and the effect this has on communities, people, and nature.

Continuing on from my first entry about the conflict that exists between corporate rights and community rights, most corporate activities do not only monopolize resources, they also pollute and often times create unsafe conditions for humans to live in their own communities. Yet – for the past 40 years, we have had a system in place that is supposedly responsible for regulating and preventing these harms from happening. This system, the environmental regulatory system, is failing to protect the well being of communities and the environment.

The current regulatory system as its name implies, regulates the harm that can be done as a result of industrial or corporate activities. There should never be an option of how much harm corporations can carry out in an area or how much we can pollute the air and water, yet our current structure of regulatory law is based on this very question. In a perfect world (of course the world is far from perfect but even in a world that made sense let’s say) the regulatory laws that are meant to protect us would not be based on the question of how much harm is allowed. Rather, the law would serve as a tool for citizens to absolutely just say ‘No’ to unwanted and harmful activities happening in the communities where they live; such as water withdrawal for bottling, mountain top removal, sludge dumping, and destructive mining practices – just to name a few. This is just another aspect of our government and legal system that has me baffled.

Democracy – By Whom?

I was taught like most American children that a Democracy is where the people get to decide by voting and direct representation. In our current system, we are taught that citizens are the ones who control what the government does by voting for the candidate that most closely follows what they believe. What we are not told is that corporations are viewed as people in the eyes of the law…and this changes everything. The number of people who vote are out numbered compared to the amount of money that corporations use to influence politics with lobbing and corporate gifts to government officials. Corporations corrupt our democratic system through direct influence on legislation that is pro-business and anti-community decision-making, wielding laws that defy citizen and nature’s rights.

Right now our democratic process is not working and we need to adopt an alternative approach that asserts the rights of citizens to make decisions about the kinds of places where they want to live.  The Community Rights model does this by engaging citizens in local organizing efforts to change law and place power back in the hands of the people most directly affected by the decisions of corporate and state actors. I must have been absent from class the day they taught us that government was more interested in protecting corporation’s rights than citizen’s.

Giving Nature Rights

Hannah with activists for nature's rights

The rights of communities, the concept of corporate rights of person hood, government regulation and nature’s rights are all very closely connected. When people ask what I am doing at my internship, I tell them we are working with communities to strip rights away from corporations and give rights to communities and nature. Yet what does it mean to give nature rights? As Shannon Biggs and others who are working so hard to see the concept of rights for nature become a reality explain, “Nature has the right to exist, flourish and evolve”.

We often take advantage of nature and think that it is just there to serve us without realizing how closely connected with nature we are. We depend on the natural processes of nature for everything; food, water, and shelter. Everything we do and consume has been taken from nature in some form or another. We are dependent on the resources that nature and Mother Earth provide. What happens when we alter the natural cycle of life, the water cycle, and the cycle of predator versus pray? 

Under our current structure of law, nature is viewed solely as property – as something to be owned. As I mentioned in the first part of this series, the law either says that you are property or you are the property owner. Women and African-Americans were once on the property side of the divide, but past people’s movements for rights have changed both law and culture, bringing these groups from being right less to rights-bearing.

People fought for their rights then, now we must be the ones to fight for the rights of the speechless Earth – and it is happening. The Universal Declaration on the Rights of Mother Earth was created several months ago at the World People’s Conference on Climate Change in Bolivia as a companion piece to the UN’s Universal Declaration on Human Rights. We must work to change our laws to recognize nature’s rights in our local communities as well as in the global context, pressuring governments to follow in the footsteps of countries like Ecuador and grant nature rights. It is a paradigm shift that can happen – and must, if we as a species wish to continue to live our lives on the earth in a way that is sustainable for our health and well being.

I leave Global Exchange today knowing that I had a hand in helping this movement grow and that I am apart of something that is much bigger than any individual person or myself. I can now officially call myself an activist.