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Maude Barlow: A Healthy Environment Should Be a Human Right

In most legal systems, you have a right to freedom of speech or religion, but you don't have a right to breathe clean air or drink safe water. That needs to change.

In most legal systems, you have a right to freedom of speech or religion, but you don’t have a right to breathe clean air or drink safe water.

Maude Barlow—author, activist, and former senior advisor on water to the United Nations—believes that those rights should be recognized. This past summer, she helped engineer a landmark victory: The U.N. formally adopted a resolution recognizing the human right to water (though the United States abstained).

Now, Barlow is part of an international movement—of governments, scientists, and activists—working to bring a focus on environmental rights to the ongoing United Nations climate negotiations. This week, she is attending the United Nations climate meeting in Cancún, Mexico.

The negotiations are thus far getting scant press attention, but thousands of people from all over the world are turning out in Cancún to voice their political views and hold alternative meetings and demonstrations outside the U.N. conference. Early this week, the international grassroots organization La Via Campesina led Barlow and hundreds of other grassroots leaders on a tour across the Mexican countryside to witness how climate change is already affecting rural communities. The tours converged in Mexico City where a few thousand people held a march to the Zócalo, the city’s central plaza.

Activists in Cancún and Mexico City are rallying behind the idea of environmental rights. Many support a document called the “People’s Agreement on Climate Change,” which includes a “ Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth.” It’s an idealistic name for a proposal that would sound either visionary or improbable, or both—if not for the fact that the declaration represents the work of representatives from 56 countries and of tens of thousands of people who attended a climate conference in Cochabamba, Bolivia, last April. The document declares that everybody has rights to basics like clean water and clean air, but it also says something even more extraordinary: that the planet’s ecosystems themselves have rights.

It’s unlikely that the Cochabamba proposals will end up in any formal agreements to emerge from Cancún. But the idea of environmental rights is taking hold. In September 2008, Ecuador formally recognized the rights of nature in its new constitution. In the United States, a handful of local governments have passed resolutions recognizing that nature has rights, including, recently, the city of Pittsburgh.

Maude Barlow spoke with me on the phone from Cancún about how the concept of environmental rights might influence climate negotiations.

Madeline Ostrander: You worked hard on promoting the notion that we have a basic human right to water. What happens when we start talking about other environmental issues in terms of human rights?

Maude Barlow: There's no such thing as human rights if we don't protect the Earth that gives us life and if we don't start having respect for other species and for air and water and soil.

Take water, for example, because it's dear to my heart. We've seen water as a resource for our convenience, pleasure, and profit. So, we do whatever we want with it, thinking it's in unlimited supply. We dump poisons into it. We move it from where it is needed for the functioning of healthy hydrologic cycles to where we want it. We dump it into the ocean as waste. We have this worldview that water, air, and ecosystems are merely here to serve us.

That has simply got to end—that notion that that's why the Earth has been put here. There's a new, deep humility that's required of humanity if we’re going to change the tide.

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