The Following piece was written by Shannon Biggs of Global Exchange, and Osprey Orielle Lake. You can also find it on the Women’s Earth and Climate Caucus news page.


‘When we speak of ecosystems as ‘resources’ — it is as if we are saying the Earth is in the business of liquidating itself.”
— Randy Kapashesit of the Cree Nation

The sacred fire was lit as over 100 primarily Indigenous peoples gathered—and hundreds more participated online—for the RIGHTS OF MOTHER EARTH: RESTORING INDIGENOUS LIFE WAYS OF RESPONSIBILITY AND RESPECT International Indigenous Conference APRIL 4 – 6, 2012 at Haskell Indian Nations University, Lawrence Kansas.

As Renee Gurneau of the Chippewa Nation explained, the fire is an important spiritual tradition acknowledging our relationship with the rest of creation in all things we do, and part of “getting into our ‘right Indigenous mind.’ As she said, “We must always give before we can take, and the fire reminds us of our Original Instructions and helps us wake up to our own knowledge.”

The Sacred Fire

Each day as we walked by the fire circle right outside the auditorium where the conference was held, we felt very grateful and honored to participate in this historic gathering to hold a discourse about Rights of Nature / Rights of Mother Earth with Indigenous leaders and activists from the Global North and South.

Conference organizers, Tom BK Goldtooth (Indigenous Environmental Network) and Dan Wildcat (Haskell University) stated, “This is the greatest challenge facing humanity in the 21st Century. How do we re-orientate the dominant industrialized societies so that they pursue human well-being in a manner that contributes to the health of our Mother Earth instead of undermining it? In other words – how do we live in harmony with Nature?”

Buen Vivir
In part, the gathering was a response to the Cochabamba World People’s Summit on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth conference called forth by President Evo Morales of Bolivia who proposed that the United Nations adopt a declaration that recognizes that Nature or “Mother Earth” is an indivisible living community of interdependent beings with inherent rights, and that as human societies we have responsibilities to follow the true laws of nature, and to live within the carrying capacity of the planet.

Marlon Santi and Patricia Gualinga Montalvo of the Sarayaku Tribe with Shannon Biggs and Ben Price

In the Kichwa  language of the Indigenous people of Ecuador it is called “sumak kawsay,” in Spanish it is “Buen Vivir” — decolonial concepts that mean ‘living well’, as opposed to consumer-driven notions of living more.  But how do we get there? Starting from where we are now, can we really envisage a future other than that which has come from enslaving nature, and treating all other life as mere “resources” for exploitation?

The conference focused on a system of earth jurisprudence (rights of nature) that views the natural world, Mother Earth, not as property to be destroyed at will, but as a rights bearing entity with legal standing in a court of law. The intent of the gathering was to bring primarily Indigenous people together with some non-Indigenous allies to explore questions about how the rights of nature legal framework could re-direct the dominant industrialized society to one of living in respect of natural laws.

The Trail of Tears

The Trail of Tears, which refers to the forced resettlement of Native Americans from their homelands and spiritual sites to far-away encampments remains present in the stories of modern colonization, theft and destruction of lands throughout Indian country. It was quite humbling and heartbreaking to realize how little we learn in our conventional school systems about the history of Native American peoples, their brutal struggles, and their outstanding resilience to hundreds of years of ongoing assaults.

Modern stories of broken promises from government officials, corporations, speculators and lawyers have created a wariness among Native leaders to partner with outsiders, and for those of us “non-native allies” present, it was a constant learning of how to engage with love and humility in a space that was first and foremost—Indigenous. Tom Goldtooth spoke at the conference on the idea of Indigenous leaders partnering with non-native allies to promote Rights for Nature:

Although not everyone saw eye-to-eye throughout the 3-day event, it was clear to all in attendance that the basic tenants proposed by the rights of nature framework, while new to western legal systems, are actually based on”original instructions” — Indigenous worldviews and philosophies that uphold the essential interrelatedness of all life and our human responsibility to respect and protect the natural world that we are part and particle of. This basic unifying principle has the potential to create new alliances and protections for every community as we face the challenging years ahead.

Shannon Biggs and Clayton Thomas-Muller, Tar Sands Campaign Director for IEN enjoy some traditional eats

Almost all of the speakers at the conference were Indigenous—from as far away as Hawaii, Ecuador and Canada.  Shannon Biggs of Global Exchange (co-author of this blog) and Ben Price from the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund had the honor and opportunity to present the work we do with communities confronted by unwanted and dangerous projects to write new laws to recognize legal rights for communities and ecosystems.

•    Watch a video of Shannon and Ben present on Community and Nature’s Rights.

•    For video and audio archive of the conference, go here.

Rights and Responsibilities to Future Generations

Representing Global Exchange and the Women’s Earth and Climate Caucus as well as our shared collaboration with the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature, we listened and learned a great deal from Indigenous leaders exploring concerns about rights of nature and how they might interface or interfere with existing Indian Native and First Nations laws.  We have much to learn about how Indigenous communities define responsibilities as much as rights, and that the rights of future generations—not just of human but all species—is critical to building a bridge toward common understanding in the shared work that we do.

Renee Gurneau at the Harvest Banquet  hosted by the Osage Nation

The call for environmental justice in Indigenous communities on the frontlines of uranium mining, tar sands extractions, water takings and more are all potential opportunities for rights of nature and community rights to come into action.

We look forward to further alliance building with Indigenous communities and offering all that we can as we look towards the Rio + 20 Earth Summit and beyond and how we can create broad support for the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth and care for all of our communities and bioregions in a truly just and respectful manner. As Tom Goldtooth said at the conference,

“We cannot flourish breaking the laws of nature. Rights of Nature is a human recognition that we are part of a larger Earth community and if we want to continue we must recognize the laws of that community; the true system governing our own well being.”

Further resources/links

  • Hawaiian Rev. M. Kalani Souza, storyteller, songwriter, musician, poet, 
philosopher, priest, political satirist, and peacemaker joins a banjo playing friend impromptu 
for a song on the grass at Haskell College.
  • Shannon Biggs and Osprey Orielle Lake are offering  Rights of Nature Trainings through the Women’s Earth and Climate Caucus and if interested, please contact Wyolah Garden ( Also if you are interested in hosting a Rights of Nature Training in your community please contact Wyolah Garden.


Shannon and Osprey at the conference

Shannon Biggs is the Director of the Community Rights program at Global Exchange. She recently co-authored a book, Building the Green Economy: Success Stories from the Grass Roots  (PoliPoint Press). Her current work focuses on assisting communities confronted by corporate harms to enact binding laws that place the rights of communities and nature above the claimed legal “rights” of corporations.

Osprey Orielle Lake is a lifelong advocate of environmental justice and societal transformation. She is the Director of the Women’s Earth and Climate Caucus (WECC) and an International Advocate for the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature. Her book, Uprisings for the Earth: Reconnecting Culture with Nature (White Cloud Press) is a 2011 Nautilus Book Award winner.

Join the sit-in this Monday, October 26!

Update: Monday Sept 26 – over 180 people were arrested for trespassing on Parliament Hill this morning including Maude Barlow, national chairperson at the Council of Canadians, Dave Coles, President of the Communication, Energy and Paperworkers union and CEP Executive Assistant, Fred Wilson, Graham Saul of Climate Action Network and Mikisew Cree George Poitras. Check here for photos: CEP’s flickr photostream and Council of Canadians photostream
Thank you everyone!

On Monday, Sept 26 hundreds will gather in Canada’s capital, Ottawa, to protest the building of the Keystone XL pipeline from the tar sands of Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico.

On the heels of the massive Tar Sands Action at the White House at the end of August, the invitation to mirror the DC action was issued by the Council of Canadians, Greenpeace Canada and the Indigenous Environment Network with a long list of expert, celebrity, organization and activist endorsements. While we in the US work to show President Obama that he has the support to stand up to the oil and gas industry and say no to the pipeline (he’s scheduled to approve the application this year), our Canadian and First Nations friends will be pressuring Prime Minister Harper to stop this massive increase in tar sands exploitation.

In August, I posted a blog with a link to a short film I helped put together called The Oil Up There. It’s worth encouraging you and others to watch it again – and remind ourselves why an expansion of the tar sands is a disaster for both people and the planet.

Daily from August 20 – September 3, hundreds of people joined the Tar Sands Action in Washington DC, where more than 1200 people were arrested at the White House in what is being called the largest act of civil disobedience in defense of the environment in US history.

The DC days of action were colourful and moving and folks from all across the continent stepped up. It’s been noted that a photo of the arrest of NASA scientist James Hansen sums up the dire and immediate situation if Keystone XL goes ahead. In 1988 he testified on climate change to congressional committees about global warming and the need to take action to limit climate change. Twenty-three years later that message needs to be heard louder than ever.

This week the Canadian Energy and Paperworkers Union (CEP) held a briefing with Members of Parliament, calling for a reversal of the Keystone XL permit and raised questions about the apparently expired certificate approval held by TransCanada Keystone Pipeline CP Ltd, and whether President Obama thus has the ability to approve an international pipeline with an expired certificate and required National Energy Board (NEB) approval. In a letter to the NEB dated September 23, they note:

Condition #22 to that Certificate stipulated that:
Unless the Board otherwise directs prior to 11 March 2011, this Certificate shall expire on 11 March 2011 unless construction in respect of the Project has commenced by that date.
Our understanding is that the Board made no direction prior to March 11, 2011, and that no construction in respect of the Project had commenced by that date. Accordingly, OC-56 expired on March 11, 2011, and there is no current approval that would allow TCPL to proceed further with the Keystone XL pipeline.

Stay tuned.

To my friends in Canada, I wish I could be there with you on Monday, and thank you/meegwetch!

For those of you in Canada, visit the Ottawa Tar Sands Action web page to find out how you can get involved. Read Council of Canadians campaigner, Andrea Harden-Donahue’s, thoughts before the protest, here.

 In the U.S., the actions against the Tar Sands have not slowed. According to, the State Department is holding a number of public hearings on the proposed pipeline, and community members are being asked to attend the meetings and testify.

Get involved from wherever you are and STOP KEYSTONE XL PIPELINE.