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'Rights of Nature' Aims To Give Legal Status To Streams, Rivers

Voters in Orange County recently approved a referendum that gives legal rights to things like rivers and springs.

Rather than treating nature as property under the law, a concept called "rights of nature" says that all life forms have the right to exist.

On Monday, environmentalists sued to stop a developer from filling in 115 acres of wetlands. The plaintiffs include two lakes, two creeks and a marsh.

The listed plaintiffs are Wilde Cypress Branch, Boggy Branch, Crosby Island Marsh, Lake Hart and Lake Mary Jane.

Laws protecting the rights of nature are growing throughout the world, from Ecuador to Uganda, and have been upheld in courts in India, Colombia and Bangladesh. But this is the first timeanyone has tried to enforce them in the U.S.

We talk with Chuck O'Neal, chairman of theFlorida Rights of Nature Network, about what "rights of nature" really means.

Tell us what Rights of Nature is all about.

It's not so much granting nature rights, but it's recognizing that nature has rights. So for years, our system of laws has recognized that commerce and industry has rights. For instance, corporations are people, right? And this is something that was not in our U.S. Constitution to begin with. But over the time, it has developed into our law, don't we, as citizens of Florida have some kind of say in what gets destroyed here?

The rights of nature movement is really building up that body of law on the side of nature, so that a person like you or I could bring an action in court and say, "You know what? You're about to destroy this spring," for example. "We don't think that's a good idea. And we're going to contest the right of that spring to exist."

So let's say if I discover somebody pouring oil into a river. I have legal standing to sue on behalf of the river against the polluter?

Yeah. Now, this may blow your mind. But not only do you have the right to sue on behalf of the river, but the river has the right to sue, on behalf of itself. It's hard for people to get their minds around a river having a right to go into court to sue on behalf of itself. But it's recognizing that these are legal entities that have a right to protect themselves. And you and I have the right to act on their behalf if we're acting in their best interest.

Does this this give you greater legal weight than if I was just suing on behalf of the river? Having the river sue on behalf of itself?

Yeah, what it does is, we believe, generally as a species, that this is our planet. Everything that was put here was for us, that we have a right to destroy everything in our sight. We say, wait a minute, there is something that we left out of that equation. And that's the right of nature to exist. It was here long before we were.

Are any other counties looking at this?

There are 30 different counties and cities across Florida that are in some stage of developing a rights of nature ordinance or charter. But on a statewide basis, what we're looking at is that we're going to roll out a statewide amendment recognizing the rights of all waterways in the state of Florida.

The governor signed into law an amendment that, in part, prohibits local governments from granting individuals the right to sue on behalf of plants, animals, bodies of water or other elements of nature. How can you do what you're doing because of that?

That is in a law called the Clean Waterways Act. That was Senate Bill 712 last year. That was a response to what we're doing in Orange County. It was a direct response. That's why we're going for the constitutional amendment — because you have local ordinances here, then you have the preemption here, and then above that is the state constitution. So the state constitutional amendment would override the preemption that is now overriding the local charter amendment.

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 Chuck O'Neal
Chuck O'Neal

Steve Newborn