“The trees are our lungs, the rivers our circulation, the air our breath and the earth is our body.” (Deepak Chopra)
Canadian environmentalists working to protect the earth are part of a worldwide life and death struggle. Canadians and Americans, however, still lack the basic legal and constitutional rights enjoyed by most people in other countries, and so don’t have the legal tools to confront the corporate greed, and government collusion with that greed, that is destroying the earth.
In his award-winning documentary “Green Rights – The Human Right to a Healthy World,” Silver Donald Cameron explores the reasons why Canadians lack basic environmental rights, and celebrates the great victories won elsewhere by people who do have such rights. Cameron was in Rexton Tuesday, September 26, for a showing of Green Rights.
“In North America, government and industry conspire to foul the air and water, and citizens can’t sue on their own behalf,” Cameron said. “Canadians simply don’t have a legal right to fresh air, clean water and a healthy environment.”
“In most countries around the world, citizens have a legal right to fresh air to breathe, clean water to drink, and healthy food to eat,” Cameron said. “But not Canadians and Americans.”
In 2012, Cameron was awarded the Diamond Jubilee Medal by Queen Elizabeth, and received both the Order of Canada and Order of Nova Scotia. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society in 2014.
Green Rights tells the story of peoples around the world who have won great victories against overwhelming odds, using their legal and constitutional environmental rights to protect the Earth that sustains their lives and communities. The documentary also explores the successful battle against shale gas fought in New Brunswick’s Kent County, despite Canadians’ lack of those basic rights.
Ultimately, Green Rights is a film that provides hope for all who love the Earth and struggle for environmental justice.
The common thread in struggles for environmental justice in diverse places like Ecuador, the Philippines, Peru, the Netherlands, Bolivia and New Brunswick is that, in each case, environmentalists are defending life itself by defending the Earth which sustains all life. Increasingly, people are recognizing that the distinction between humans and ‘the environment’ is a harmful delusion, and that what we do to the life-sustaining planet, we do to ourselves.
Santiago Valera is an activist in Peru who was shot eight times defending the headwaters of the Amazon and its rainforest from pollution by oil and gas companies. It was a costly defense. During a two-day clash in 2009, 41 Aboriginals were killed and another 150 wounded, while 32 policemen died.
“Government forces surrounded us and we had no choice but to fight back,” Valera said.
He’s also a deeply religious man. “My religious education taught me that you must defend life. You don’t destroy the forest, you protect it,” Valera said. “Humanity and Nature are not separate entities, and we have to live in balance.”
In the growing recognition that people, and indeed all life are intimately interconnected and mutually sustaining, Cameron sees the beginnings of what he calls “the birth of global citizenship.”
Alberto Acosta was president of the Ecuadorian Assembly in 2008 when Ecuador became the first country in the world to recognize “the rights of Mother Earth,” which he points out “sustains all life.” “Humans must be in harmony with each other, and we all need to live in harmony with Nature,” Acosta said.
“The alternative is a ‘necro-economy,’ an economy of death,” he said. “What we need to work toward is an economy of life.” An economy of life provides the means for people to live well, without always seeking to have more and more.
In Ecuador, activist lawyers Pablo Fajardo and Steven Donziger sued Texaco (now Chevron) for devastating pollution caused by the oil giant. Fajardo received help from the Roman Catholic Church to obtain his law degree, and has been using the environmental rights enjoyed by Ecuadorians to defend his people and the environment.
Fajardo and Donziger eventually won a multi-billion dollar judgment, but Chevron pulled out of Ecuador. The two lawyers are now asking Canadian and American courts to enforce the judgment. Part of their case involved the use of public health data that showed more than 2,000 people had died from toxins produced by oil and gas companies, and two indigenous nations were wiped out entirely!
Cormac Cullen is an environmental lawyer in South Africa and played an important role in drafting the 2010 Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth. He says, “the significant crises of our time, most of which are characterized as environmental crises,” arise from “human behavior. . .based on the false understanding—the delusion, if you like–that we are separate from Nature and that our role on this planet is to subdue and dominate nature.”
Green Rights tells the story of how ‘the good guys’ can win. In the Netherlands, for example, 900 citizens sued the government for its weak response to climate change, and won. There, the courts ordered the government of the Netherlands to reduce greenhouse emissions by 25% by the year 2020.
In Argentina, activist lawyer Daniel Sallaberry sued the government and 44 private companies to force a cleanup of the Riachuelo River than had been a cesspool of pollution for 200 years. Although that cleanup is not finished, the Riachuelo River is now cleaner than it has been for two centuries, and it’s getting cleaner every day.
Today there are 250 inspectors monitoring the Riachuelo River, and that’s more inspectors than Environment Canada has for all of Canada! Green Rights shows that, by comparison with other places, Canada only pays lip service to environmental protection.
The ‘necro-economy’ of death that activists like Cullen, Acosta and Valera seek to replace with an economy of life is also being challenged on both the east and west coasts of Canada. David Suzuki is an honoured Canadian scientist, award-winning broadcaster, environmental activist and founder of the Suzuki Foundation. In Green Rights, he says the Haida First Nation on the Pacific Coast of Canada “has been my teacher for years.”
Suzuki says the wisdom of the Haida people recognizes the intimate connection of humans and all life forms to the environment. “That connection is so profound that there is no difference between humans and the environment in terms of ‘who we are.’ We need to recognize and respect the rights of Nature.”
Green Rights explores the reasons behind Canada’s and America’s failure to acknowledge, let alone respect or protect the environment.
If the world belongs to the Crown or government and is then conveyed or given to individuals, the Earth becomes property and is subject to human whims, but “if the world is a gift from the Creator, then it is inherently sacred and has to be treated with respect,” Cameron said. “When you talk about the human right to a healthy environment and the rights of Mother Earth, you’re really talking about the same thing.”
The adage that ‘actions speak louder than words’ is especially appropriate in understanding why Canada and the USA are so far behind other nations in respecting and defending the earth which is the font of all life.
Cameron says governments here and in the U.S. and Europe have always assumed their role is to facilitate the corporate sector, and their actions betray a lack of respect for the environment and life.
In Cameron’s own province of Nova Scotia, “the Northern Pulp mill has been spewing toxic effluent into the middle of the Pictou Landing First Nation for 50 years,” and that “witches’ brew,” which also contains heavy metals, ultimately drains into the Northumberland Straight.
For years efforts to force the Northern Pulp Nova Scotia Corporation to clean up the mill have floundered on the fact that Canadians just don’t have the legal rights to a healthy environment. Pictou County residents interviewed in Green Rights lament the fact that successive provincial governments in Nova Scotia have never had the courage, foresight or wisdom to force a cleanup.
New Brunswick burst on to the world stage in 2013 when, as Cameron puts it, “an irresistible force met an immovable object.”
The “irresistible force” was the combined might of the Province of New Brunswick, the RCMP and SWN, a multi-billion dollar, Texas-based, resource extraction company. The “immovable object” was the historically unprecedented alliance of Aboriginal people, Acadians and Anglophones.
In the struggle scores of people trying to defend their homes and water were arrested, gas company equipment was attacked, and 250 formal complaints about police conduct were filed. Those complaints resulted in an inquiry into police conduct in Kent County in 2013 that has still not reported.
In October 2013, RCMP attacked and overran a peaceful protest camp near Rexton. The RCMP riot, however, attracted protesters from other parts of Canada, and the struggle to stop shale gas continued until SWN withdrew from the province.
Finally, in a 2014 election, the Conservative government of the day was trounced by the Liberal Party which promised a moratorium on shale gas. That moratorium remains in place to this day.
Cameron said the way people use their right to a healthy environment elsewhere shows what can be accomplished. “The good news is that we may be getting environmental rights now” Cameron said. “The [federal government’s] Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development has recommended such rights for Canadians.”
Environmental rights are long overdue in Canada and, until we have them, the Earth that sustains all life will continue to be a corporate playground where the greedy can abuse it and send the bill, via government, to taxpayers. For years, provincial and federal governments have ignored the inherent environmental rights of their citizens in favor of playing the handmaiden to industry.
Liberal and Conservative governments have failed catastrophically to protect their citizens and the Earth that sustains all life. A recent study showed that more half of all species in Canada are in sharp decline.
Nowhere is the failure of Canada more evident than on the issue of climate change. Both Prime Minister Trudeau and New Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant acknowledge the crisis, but continue to promote, respectively, the Kinder Morgan and Energy East pipelines. That’s rather like being in a life boat in mid-Atlantic, acknowledging the situation is grave, and drilling a hole in the bottom of the boat to get water.
Green Rights is about hope in the face of hypocrisy, greed and ignorance. It shows how citizens can act together to force governments to respect life by respecting the Earth that sustains it. The documentary also shows that governments and corporations won’t act unless citizens demand it.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has,” said Margaret Mead.
Dallas McQuarrie is a retired civil servant and journalist living in the unceded Mi’kmaq territory of Signiktuk.