Port Townsend on Monday proclaimed in a resolution that southern resident orcas have legal rights, marking the first time a US city council has made such recognition.
“The rights of southern resident orcas include, but are not limited to, the right to life, self-reliance, culture, free and safe passage, an adequate food supply from natural sources, and ‘absence of conditions causing physical, emotional or mental harm, including habitat degraded by noise, pollution and contamination,’ Mayor David J. Faber said at the council meeting, reading a non-binding proclamation.
The resolution represents the latest development of the “rights of nature” movement, which recognizes that nature and all of its constituent parts – including wild animals, mountains, forests and rivers – possess inherent legal rights similar to those humans.
The resolution, which was backed by City Council and Mayor Faber, also acknowledged that existing legal protections for whales have proven insufficient.
Although killer whales are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act and listed under the Endangered Species Act in 2005, the southern resident killer whale population is in decline. Only 73 individuals remain in the wild, down from a recent peak of nearly 100 whales in the mid-1990s. Scientists say southern residents are threatened by persistent pollution, noise from boat traffic and dwindling populations of chinook salmon, the primary food source for killer whales.
For Kriss Kevorkian, the founder of Legal Rights for the Salish Sea, recognizing the rights of southern residents is a step towards reorienting humanity’s relationship with nature and towards the reality that humans are part of nature. .
“We have a responsibility to protect the southern resident orcas,” Kevorkian said. “We can’t let them die on our watch.”
Because southerners resonate so strongly with people in Washington and around the world, Kevorkian said, she hopes the Port Townsend resolution will inspire recognition of the rights of orcas and nature in general, at the level of the Washington State.
If Southern Resident Rights made this a binding law, it would give orcas legal standing to defend their rights in court, which is usually done through a guardianship process where individuals or organizations act on the name of the best interests of the orcas. .
Southern residents are culturally significant to many indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest.
In 2018, one of the killer whales, known as Tahlequah, came to international attention when she refused to give up her stillborn calf, carrying it through water for 17 days. Killer whales have unique cultural, social and physical characteristics and, like humans, they are sentient beings, have individual personality traits and display affection, grief and playfulness, the scientists determined.
Tahlequah’s story inspired residents of Port Townsend and a coalition of local organizations to propose that the city recognize orcas as rights-bearing beings. Elizabeth Dunne, a Washington-based lawyer with the Earth Law Center who worked on the campaign, said the proclamation, while not legally binding, moves away from existing legal and economic systems that view orcas as animals. objects and goods that humans can possess and destroy. .
“In this country, recognizing the rights of nature may seem like a bold move, but around the world, it’s not,” Dunne said. “In other countries that already recognize these rights, it’s part of an overhaul of their legal systems.”
Worldwide, at least 39 countries and Indigenous nations have court rulings or some form of legislation recognizing the rights of nature. In Ecuador, where there is constitutional recognition of the rights of Pacha Mama, or Mother Earth, laws have been used to block exploratory mining projects in fragile ecosystems and to demand the restoration of a damaged river.
Researchers estimate that there are more than 400 initiatives underway around the world to advance the recognition of the rights of nature. Separately, legal systems around the world, from New Zealand to the UK and Spain, are increasingly recognizing that animals have the capacity to experience feelings and sensations, including suffering.
In the United States, local communities across the country have enacted laws or taken action to recognize the legal rights of nature. However, these laws have encountered obstacles that have prevented them from being enforced, due to state-level legal precedents that subordinate or supersede local government laws to state legislation.
A court in the United States has yet to uphold the Nature Rights Act.
While the movement began with the passing of a local ordinance in Tamaqua, Pennsylvania in 2006, Dunne said corporate influence over the making of laws has slowed the movement’s growth in the United States.
Nature rights advocates often point out that most existing legal systems treat nature as property while granting corporations many of the same legal rights as humans, including the rights to due process and freedom of association. ‘expression. This imbalance is why some sectors of the business community have defended the status quo and worked to block initiatives, including laws recognizing Lake Erie rights and waterway rights in Orlando, Florida, Dunne said. .
“Companies engaged in extractive industries feel threatened by the idea that nature has rights,” she said, “because it means companies will have to take better account of their impacts on the environment, for opposition to a system that allows them to obtain permits that allow them to pollute.
Editor’s note: This story was originally published by Inside Climate News. Read it here.
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