What would a Rights of the Salish Sea law cover?

The laws propose changes to fundamental elements of San Juan County’s legal system, to:

  • Reject the idea that the Salish Sea and its species, plants, and shorelines are property and recognize the Salish Sea as a living being and an entity with its own legal rights. (The Salish Sea includes all its constituent ecosystems, natural communities and native species.)
  • Set out what the rights of the Salish Sea are.
  • Recognize the fundamental rights of First Nations and Tribal Nations Peoples to defend the Rights of the Salish Sea, and to carry out their rights and obligations as traditional owners and custodians, to protect the Salish Sea.
  • Prohibit actions that would violate the rights of the Salish Sea.
  • Allow people to enforce the rights of the Salish Sea by starting court proceedings in the name of the Salish Sea.
  • Use the Rights of the Salish Sea as a tool to work with San Juan County and Washington State government and state organizations to better protect the Salish Sea.
  • Reverse the onus of proof – which means that where a person or community takes action to enforce the rights of the Salish Sea, the new laws require the development proponents being challenged to prove that their project, activity, or development does not interfere with the rights of the Salish Sea to exist, thrive, regenerate, and evolve.
  • In cases of environmental destruction – including harm caused by the exploitation of non-renewable natural resources – ensure that monetary damages derived from proceedings are used solely to restore the Salish Sea to its prior natural state.

What are rights of nature?

At present, San Juan County’s legal system (and WA State’s and federal law) treats the living world as property. Our environmental protection laws are a good start, and have made some progress – but they are still operating within a system that’s geared to support endless development, resource extraction and pollution, too often at the expense of the ecosystems we depend on.

Rights of Nature laws are designed to reflect our 21st Century understanding of life on Earth – we are part of nature, interconnected with nature and we depend upon nature. We don’t have a right to own nature and we don’t have a right to destroy nature. The living world has a right to exist, thrive and evolve – and our legal system needs to be transformed to respect this reality.

What would these laws mean for you?

For the first time in San Juan County, these laws would empower all citizens to protect the Salish Sea and challenge proposed and existing activities that damage the Salish Sea.

These new laws would recognize the Salish Sea as a living entity with its own right to exist, thrive and regenerate; and it would recognize the fundamental rights of First Nations People to defend their ancestral land and sea country, and the rights of any concerned citizen to take legal action to defend the rights of the Salish Sea.

By recognizing the rights of the Salish Sea, human activities will have to change to become sustainable and to be supportive of regenerative life on the Salish Sea.

Why advocate for legal recognition of the rights of the Salish Sea?

Our legal system has failed to protect the natural world, and has failed the Salish Sea. This is not surprising, as the USA’s current laws support an economic system driven by unsustainable growth, endless resource extraction, and the idea that nature is merely property. Our laws do not recognize the rights of local communities to stop unwanted developments, and they do not recognize the inherent rights of the non-human world to live and flourish.

Community Rights San Juan Islands is working to create new conversations in San Juan County about the legal status of the natural world. This involves advocating for legal recognition of the rights of nature and local communities, so ordinary people can defend the rights of the natural world to exist, thrive and evolve, challenge corporate and government destruction of the natural world, and demand a healthy future built on a living economy.

Around the world, other communities, legislatures and courts are losing faith in traditional environmental law to protect the natural world. There are a growing number of jurisdictions shifting the legal status of nature from property, to subjects of the law. This means that natural systems have their own inherent rights to exist, thrive and evolve, recognized in law, and legal actions can be taken on behalf of the ecosystems.

Examples include: the constitution of Ecuador, national legislation in Bolivia, local ordinances in the USA (e.g. in Pennsylvania) and recent court decisions in India which recognize the legal rights of nature; developments in New Zealand under the Treaty of Waitangi, which have seen several ecosystems granted legal personhood and in Australia, the creation of ‘environmental water managers’ in domestic law has seen legal rights allocated to environmental water flows.

For an overview of why rights of nature laws are different from the current paradigm and how they can play a part in transforming cultural worldviews and the legal system, please see the Rights of Nature Timeline and the CELDF FAQ.

Do Rights of Nature laws stop all human activities and development?

No, they don’t. But we do need to rethink some of our activities and limit our most destructive practices – and industrial societies need to rethink our attitude towards  what we can demand from our finite planet.

Recognizing Rights of Nature does not put an end to human activities, rather it places them in the context of a healthy relationship where our actions do not threaten the balance of the system upon which we depend. Further, these laws do not stop all development, they halt only those uses of land that interfere with the very existence and vitality of the ecosystems which depend upon them.

— Mari Margil, “Building an International Rights of Nature Movement” in M.Maloney and P.Burdon (eds) Wild Law in Practice (Routledge, 2014)

Do we need the State and Federal Governments to change the laws, or can we create these laws through local democracy?

In today’s political climate, we can’t wait for political leaders who have failed to protect the Salish Sea and failed to address climate change. We need to use peaceful, democratic means – such as new local laws and new local declarations and statements – to assert community and nature rights.

The proposed new local law is designed for our local community, here in San Juan County, to discuss, adapt/adopt and advocate to our county council to implement. Only by acting together, and supporting the transformation of our legal system, will change happen.

Examples of how local communities have made laws asserting the rights of nature can be found in the USA. CELDF – the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund – helps communities assert their rights and challenge unwanted developments.

What are the main concerns that could potentially be addressed by a Rights of Nature law in San Juan County?

We are proposing a law that would allow citizens to have broad scope in protecting the rights of the Salish Sea. Our most pressing concerns include:

  • Protecting the rights of the species that live in and depend on a healthy Salish Sea, including forage fish, salmon, and Orca.
  • Protecting and fostering a healthy climate, which we could do by moving away from fossil fuels.
  • Protecting the overall health of the Salish Sea by reducing risks from oil spills, maintaining and expanding healthy shorelines, and keeping man-made noise to a minimum.