Who Speaks for the Earth? Three Stories of Environmental Law

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Dr. Seuss’s grumpy, beleaguered, and beloved Lorax character says, “I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues.” This poignant children’s book brings some interesting questions to mind—who speaks for the earth in courts around the world, and for the rights of the planet itself? Is our species held guilty as a whole of harming the earth? 

Who is held responsible by law, who commits ecocide, who represents the earth, where do these cases play out, and are they successful? Here are three contemporary stories in environmental law that offer some unique perspectives on these questions.

The International Criminal Court

In September of 2016, the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague released a case-selection policy document stating that it would be bringing new focus to crimes relating to the destruction of the environment and to illegal land grabs.[1] Here is the specific wording: they will “give particular consideration to prosecuting Rome Statute crimes that are committed by means of, or that result in, inter alia, the destruction of the environment, the illegal exploitation of natural resources, or the illegal dispossession of land.” The Rome Statute under which the ICC functions already mentions “damage to the natural environment” and “forced displacement” in its description of crimes and regulations.[2] The new specific focus on environmental crimes is significant because, as Adam Taylor of the Washington Post explains, it signals that the ICC is offering their “expertise and clout to aid the investigation[s].”[3]

The work of environmental activism groups, environmental law firms, and international criminal law firms around the world may be altered or boosted by this development. The same Washington Post article mentions the law firm Global Diligence as an example of one group that welcomes this policy announcement. Global Diligence has lodged a case in Cambodia accusing the elite of forced land-grabs that displace indigenous groups and dispossess them of both their natural environment and cultural heritage. Richard Rogers, a partner with Global Diligence, said that “the ICC Prosecutor has sent a clear message that such offences may amount to crimes against humanity and can no longer be tolerated.”

Global Witness is an advocacy group that has also noted the importance of the ICC policy focus. Their Executive Director Gillian Caldwell said:

Company bosses and politicians complicit in violently seizing land, razing tropical forests, or poisoning water sources could soon find themselves standing trial in The Hague alongside war criminals and dictators.[4]

From Dakota to the United Nations

In another interesting recent story that quickly went from local to international news, the United Nations weighed in on the case of the Dakota Access oil pipeline in favor of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. The tribe is represented by Earth Justice, the United States’ largest non-profit environmental law organization whose motto is “because the earth needs a good lawyer.” They filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for “violating the National Historic Preservation Act and other laws, after the agency issued final permits for a massive crude oil pipeline stretching from North Dakota to Illinois.”[5] Members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe have been camped with other supporters in peaceful protest at the proposed pipeline site, and they addressed the United Nations in September of 2016. Daniel J. Graeber of United Press International reports that Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, a United Nations special envoy for the rights of indigenous people, “called for a halt to the pipeline’s construction because it’s seen as a threat to drinking water supplies and some of the sacred sites of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.”[6]

Construction was halted in December but in January, President Trump signed an executive order to reopen the pipeline plans and negotiations. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe plans to continue their fight—they said on Facebook his actions violate the law as well as tribal treaties, and “Nothing will deter us from our fight for clean water.”[7]

Young People Sue the U.S. Government over Climate Change

I am reminded when reading about these environmental cases of a quote without a clear source that is often attributed to Native American cultures: “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.” Those who work to carry out these cases, who create new precedents and interpret and uphold existing environmental laws, are working in the name not only of our present human population but of generations to come. With that in mind, another case of interest is one in which twenty-one young people are suing the U.S. government and president for not acting effectively to stop climate change.

The suit against the government is part of a multi-year campaign by the organization Our Children’s Trust and has support from former NASA climate scientist James Hansen, among others. The group aims to empower youth to campaign for their right to live in a healthy environment. Their site explains that through their programs, “youth participate in advocacy, public education, and civic engagement to ensure the viability of all natural systems in accordance with science.” They have filed petitions and complaints on behalf of young people throughout the United States. A CNN article entitled “Climate Kids Take on the Feds” quotes Xiuhtezcatl Tonatiuh, one of the plaintiffs who appeared in court in March of 2016:

My generation is going to be inheriting the crisis we see all around us today. We are standing up not only for the environment and the Earth and the atmosphere but for the rights we have to live in a healthy, just, and sustainable world.[8]

It’s clear from just these few stories that there are many diverse contemporary voices speaking for the earth in court. Here’s another related quote: “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” Along with actual trees, perhaps some of the metaphorical trees we plant are these cases in which we stand up for the earth among our fellow human beings. Through this environmental legal work we plant seeds, grow roots, and provide shade that future environmentalists will rely on when they, in turn, speak for the earth. 

[1]. International Criminal Court, Office of the Prosecutor, Policy Paper on Case Selection and Prioritization, September 15, 2016, at https://www.icc-cpi.int/itemsDocuments/20160915_OTP-Policy_Case-Selection_Eng.pdf.

[2]. Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, July 1, 2002, at https://www.icc-cpi.int/nr/rdonlyres/ea9aeff7-5752-4f84-be94-0a655eb30e16/0/rome_statute_english.pdf.

[3]. A. Taylor, “Is Environmental Destruction a Crime against Humanity? The ICC May Be About To Find Out,” Washington Post, September 16, 2016, at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2016/09/16/is-environmental-destruction-a-crime-against-humanity-the-icc-may-be-about-to-find-out/?utm_term=.dab3c5aae1e1.

[4]. Global Witness, “Company Executives Could Now Be Tried for Land Grabs and Environmental Destruction,” press release, September 15, 2016, at https://www.globalwitness.org/en/press-releases/company-executives-could-now-be-tried-land-grabbing-and-environmental-destruction-historic-move-international-criminal-court-prosecutor/.

[5]. United States Court for the District of Columbia, Standing Rock Sioux Tribe v. U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, Complaint for Declaratory and Injunctive Relief, at http://www.earthjustice.org/sites/default/files/files/3154%201%20Complaint.pdf.

[6]. D.J. Graeber, “U.N. Steps into Dakota Oil Pipeline Fight,” UPI, September 23, 2016, at http://www.upi.com/UN-steps-into-Dakota-oil-pipeline-fight/2181474632946/.

[7]. Facebook post on January 24, 2017, at 1.30 p.m. EST, available at https://www.facebook.com/Standing-Rock-Sioux-Tribe-402298239798452/.

[8]. J.D. Sutter, “Climate Kids Take on the Feds,” CNN, March 9, 2016, at http://www.cnn.com/2016/03/09/opinions/sutter-oregon-kids-lawsuit-climate/.

  • Julia A. Travers

    Julia A. Travers is a journalist and writer. Her work appears with Earth Island Journal, Not ImpossibleOn Being, and SciArt Magazine, among other publications. Visit her at jtravers.journoportfolio.com

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