The following is the first 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 an intern to the Community Rights Program at Global Exchange this summer, I learned a lot —and most of what I learned is not in line with what the public school system taught me growing up. I would like to think that I have a strong understanding of how our government works from my history, civics and government classes that I took before college, but perhaps the school system whose mission it is to prepare us for the real world and to be contributing members of society did not completely fill their role. The biggest thing that I have learned so far this summer is just WHO our laws and government actually benefit.

Let me begin with the one of the most startling revelations of the summer: Oftentimes, the priority of local governments is to execute the needs of the state rather than being committed to representing residents’ rights first and foremost. Or, even more shocking, is the fact that corporations have the same “rights” as humans! It is ingrained in us from when we are young that corporations are driven mainly by money and short-term profit – and money trumps everything. So when it comes down to decision-making of course corporations are going to have the advantage. Yet, I had no idea that the law actually legally protected this kind of logic. Now not only do corporations have all the money and power, they are legally protected with the right to exploit people as well as natural resources.

These two concepts are more closely tied to each other than you might think. With these legal protections bestowed on corporations and government failing to prioritize citizen’s rights, corporations have a monopoly on resources. Corporations take local water at subsidized rates, bottle it and sell it back to us at inflated prices. The local communities don’t have the right to say “NO” to such activities, even when these activities damage their ecosystems. Whether it is mountaintop removal, gas fracking, mining, and more, the law says corporations have the right to make a profit even at the expense of the local community.

According to our own laws we are guaranteed certain rights, right? So then why is it that we have to go through lawsuit battles with corporations and go broke just trying to meet our basic needs? Rooted in English Common law (going back way before the war for our Independence) our current U.S. laws protect the few with money and not the many that government was created for. Our own laws make things very clear; our system is set up for commerce and ownership. There is no gray area to this idea; you own things or you are the thing that is owned. A corporation that owns land in your town also owns the water that flows though it, and can do pretty much whatever they want with the land, the minerals underground or the water, even if it harms the ecosystem and the larger community. They have this legal right and we do not have the right to tell them otherwise.

Most often it is more than just the taking of natural resources that the corporations are responsible for. The methods of extraction, or application of pesticides and toxic chemicals reaches further that just that of the site of resource extraction. The damage done impacts the immediate community putting the lives of many people and the surrounding environment at risk, creating cancer clusters, eroding the soil and polluting the water and air. We believe we have laws to protect us from such destruction, but in reality these regulatory laws protect corporations at the expense of the health and well-being of the communities where we live.

Stay tuned for the next part of the series where Hannah will explore the question of who really has the deciding power in the U.S. – corporations or citizens? Update: Part 2.