Today is Earth Day. Maybe you’ve already read a few blog posts today about doing your little part: recycling, taking public transit, and turning out the lights. Or perhaps you’ve heard the sometimes cutesy, sometimes cynical retort: “every day is Earth Day.” These are both important concepts (and, I must confess, I wrote a “do your part” post on Human Rights Day four months ago), but for those of us entrenched in the environmental movement, they are also both woefully unsatisfying. We work on deeply rooted, complex problems and, while consumer lifestyle choices play a role in these issues, tweaking our daily routines won’t solve them. These are problems that demand system change, and systems changes aren’t easily reduced to bullet points.

So, instead of a fun and easily digested tips list, I’d like to honor Earth Day today with a more substantive post, exploring in broad strokes the core issue we work on at EarthRights International: the intersection of human rights and the environment, and the appalling earth rights abuses occurring around the world.

Background: the theory of earth rights

In 1999, Jed Greer and Tyler Giannini (an ERI co-founder) published “Earth Rights: Linking the Quest for Human Rights and Environmental Protection.” This book, which is unfortunately the only major ERI publication not currently available online, weaves together a set of legal principles and a theory of advocacy to explain the connection between human well-being and a sound environment, and the rights — the “earth rights” — that this connection implies. Earth rights include “the right to a healthy environment, the right to speak out and protect the environment, and the right to participate in development decisions,” although Greer and Giannini’s more expansive list also includes the right to life, freedom from arbitrary deprivation of one’s property and interference with one’s home, the rights to nondiscrimination, health, food security and a means of subsistence, as well as the rights of indigenous people.

The argument, in a nut shell, is that “a sound environment cannot be maintained without respect for human rights” and, conversely, “human rights are unattainable without a healthy and safe environment.”

All of these rights have been recognized in various forums, so there is an international legal foundation for defending them, but overall the protections of these rights are highly porous and earth rights abuses abound all over the world. Our work at ERI seeks to strengthen these protections (“the power of law”) by raising the voices and visibility of affected communities (“the power of people”), in the courtroom, the media, and all levels of policy making.

Putting it in action

So how can we actually see these ideas at work? Here are a few examples:

  • Our cases against Occidental Petroleum and Union Carbide arise from contamination in Peru and India, respectively: environmental disasters that, over time, have had devastating impacts on human health.
  • Both of our past cases in Nigeria involved brutal human rights abuses by a repressive Nigerian military and directed towards environmental activists standing up for their own land and livelihoods.
  • Our work in Burma, both in the landmark case Doe v. Unocal and our ongoing campaigns, may seem to be more narrowly confined to human rights, but the rapes, murders, forced labor, and other abuses flow directly from the so-called “rape of the land” — development projects which not only have terrible environmental consequences, but which have proceeded without adequate participation of the communities whose lives and livelihoods will be threatened by the projects for years to come.
  • Throughout the Mekong region of Southeast Asia, alumni of our EarthRights School Mekong and participants in our Mekong Legal Advocacy Institute have been working to halt the development of hydropower dams on the Mekong river. (My colleague Daniel blogged about one such dam project earlier today). The disruption of regional fisheries by these dams would not only threaten the local ecology, it would also devastate the food security of many communities living along the river. As one of our alumni was told, “we want to eat fish; we cannot eat electricity.”

“Earth rights” beyond EarthRights

Obviously, we’re not the only people working on earth rights issues. Here are a few examples of both earth rights heroes and ongoing threats:

  • Indigenous Ecuadorians were recently awarded an $8 billion judgment against Chevron, though the legal fight is far from over.
  • The 2010 film “Gasland” highlights the health impacts of natural gas drilling across the United States, particularly the leaking of chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) into vital groundwater.
  • After the government of El Salvador honored community participation and stood up for indigenous rights by denying a gold mining permit, Canadian company Pacific Rim filed a suit with the World Bank for lost profits, arguing that the permit denial violated CAFTA.

I could go on and on. There are many amazing people and organizations working in defense of earth rights, and many more are needed to stop the enormous number of earth rights abuses happening around the world. I have to stop somewhere, though, so at the very least, I hope this post has provided a useful overview of the field, and exposed the breadth and depth of the problems we face.

Armchair earth rights?

If, after all that exposition, you’re still itching for a little to-do list, here are a few things you can do today to help protect earth rights:

  1. Talk about earth rights today with a friend. A face to face conversation can really shift a person’s perspective.
  2. Forward, share, or tweet this post, and sign up for our newsletter. Every new ally creates new possibilities.
  3. Recycle. Seriously. It may be a bit removed from earth rights, but it’s good for the planet, and it’s easy.

I hope this is just the first of a series of posts clarifying some of the ins and outs of our admittedly complex work. If there’s something in particular you’d like to know more about, please mention it in the comments below.

Oh, and Happy Earth Day!