The case for Rights of Nature: Next steps for the SAFEBOR campaign

By John Moran

It’s a fair question: With the passage of the heralded Clean Waterways Act of 2020, why is the SAFEBOR campaign still pushing for a Bill of Rights for the Santa Fe River?

Here’s a hint: despite the bill’s catchy title, Tallahassee isn’t coming to the rescue. 

Looking under the hood, this bill does nothing to reduce the dominant source of pollution ravaging our beloved rivers and springs.

How can this be? Here’s another hint: Follow the money. With the support of nearly every major polluting industry in Florida, the legislature has once again prioritized polluter profits over protecting public waters.

But wait, there’s more: SB712 also preempts local government anywhere in Florida from recognizing Rights of Nature.

So how did we get here? 

Rivers ebb and rivers flow but Denial still reigns as the mightiest river in Florida.

Consider the bizarre pronouncement from Rep. Chuck Clemons last year in the wake of the worst water crisis in state history, Florida’s infamous 2018 Summer of Slime.

 Clemons boldly stated in a Gainesville Sun opinion column“Florida’s environment is getting better. Much better. And that is directly tied to the leadership of Florida.”

Incredulous, I grabbed my cameras and went to more than a dozen springs on the Santa Fe and Suwannee Rivers last summer; searching for evidence that our springs really are getting better.

I found no cause for celebration. The pictures below tell the tale. What I found broke my heart and pissed me off. In almost every spring in the Suwannee River Valley, disgusting and noxious slime—fueled largely by agricultural fertilizer and manure—is now the dominant life form. The new normal.

The most magnificent natural springs on the planet are becoming aquatic wastelands. They’re dying on our watch.

We were told 2020 was going to be the year that Tallahassee ditched the blinders and embraced clear vision. Instead we got legislative malfeasance masquerading as responsible oversight.

This legislature didn’t formally declare war on clean water in Florida but it begs the question, could the condition of our springs be much worse if they had?

The governor could veto this defective bill but don’t hold your breath. In the words of the director of one of Florida’s leading environmental nonprofits, “Agriculture gets a free pass to pollute and Ron DeSantis is Rick Scott with a new coat of paint.”

So what’s the status of the SAFEBOR campaign now?

With voter approval in November, Alachua County’s Home Rule Charter will be amended to recognize the right of the Santa Fe River to naturally exist and flourish and to assert our community’s right to a healthy river ecosystem and aquifer.

More than 4000 voters signed our petition to place a Rights of Nature initiative on the ballot but that was well short of the required 18,094 signatures, so now it’s on to Plan B. 

We’ve appealed to the Charter Review Commission and the Board of County Commissioners—the public can weigh in, too—to directly place Rights of Nature on the ballot despite the looming threat of legislative preemption.

With their own attorneys advising against it, why should the CRC or BoCC tangle with Tallahassee and risk an expensive lawsuit? 

Simply put, Florida’s water is Florida’s lifeblood. And our waters are under siege. Job One for government, it bears repeating, is to foster public health, safety and welfare.

But an epidemic of indifference has swept through the Capitol, fueled by an ideological cocktail of power, hubris and greed. 

In the fever grip of plunder consciousness, our legislators have tested positive for dishonoring the intelligence of nature and the will of the people. They have defiled democracy itself.

We’re heading for a cliff and Tallahassee’s message is clear: We’re not going to fix this and neither are you. Rights of Nature isn’t new and it’s not radical. Ancient wisdom is speaking, if only we will listen. The self-evident truth is that we need nature more than nature needs us.

It’s time for deep, systemic change. This moment demands brave political leaders who understand that Rights of Nature is an idea whose time has come. 

Let the voters decide. And if voters approve then let’s vigorously defend our County Charter and challenge Tallahassee’s outrageous claim that we have no right to clean water and healthy communities.

Will Rights of Nature save the river? Perhaps the bigger question is this: Can Rights of Nature save us from ourselves? A Bill of Rights for the river is a Bill of Rights for the future. It’s the right thing to do.

Don’t preempt local water protections (via the Gainesville Sun)

Via the Gainesville Sun Editorial Board

If Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Legislature won’t do their job in protecting Florida’s natural environment, they shouldn’t stand in the way of local citizens seeking to do it for them.

With state lawmakers failing to protect rivers, springs and other parts of Florida’s environment, communities across the state are considering laws to recognize the rights of nature.

In Alachua County, signatures are being collected to put an initiative called the Santa Fe River Bill of Rights (SAFEBOR) on the November ballot. The charter amendment would recognize the legal rights of the Santa Fe River, its springs and tributaries, and the Floridan Aquifer within the county.

The effort is part of a growing “rights of nature” movement to allow people to sue polluters on behalf of the environment. Last February, more than 60% of voters in Toledo, Ohio, passed a Lake Erie Bill of Rights initiative in response to algae blooms fueled by agricultural runoff and other problems with the water body.

But an amendment was later passed in Ohio’s state budget that invalidated the initiative. Now it appears Florida lawmakers are seeking to pass something similar here, which in this case would stop rights-of-nature laws before they are even approved. . . .

Please read the rest of this astute editorial at the Gainesville Sun website.

The Stillheart Declaration (2013)

As humanity fast-tracks towards the collapse of our planetary systems, we sought to articulate a shared vision toward a new economy based on living in balance with natural systems; where the rights of humans do not extend to the domination of nature. We questioned the viability of a global economy whose jurisprudence places property rights above all; recognizes corporate rights as the most sacred of property rights; subordinates human rights and the collective rights of Indigenous Peoples to corporate rights; and where Nature is not recognized as having any intrinsic rights at all. We discussed the power and possibility of an emerging body of law—recognizing legal rights for ecosystems to exist, flourish and regenerate their vital cycles—as a necessary part of placing our human laws in alignment with Nature’s laws, and our human actions and economy in an appropriate relationship with the natural order of which we are part.

The entire Declaration can be read here. Necessary elements of an economic system consistent with the Rights of Nature include the following:

  • Immediately reducing production and consumption levels to within the carrying capacities of the planet, and the equitable redistribution of available resources/wealth;
  • The full restoration of ecosystems, primarily allowing nature to heal itself;
  • The relocalization of primary production, distribution and use; the abandonment of economic globalization models as inherently wasteful and inequitable;
  • Full recognition of non-monetized labor;
  • Governance through ecologically informed, democratic, participatory, engaged and empowered decision-making at all scales;
  • Elimination of economic systems and strategies that prioritize economic growth, and profit, and private acquisition of resources and wealth, above all other values;
  • The elimination of substances that are toxic, persistent, and bioaccumulative;
  • Zero waste systems for production, use, and decomposition known as cradle-to-cradle living;
  • Recognition of sacred relationships with place;
  • In all economic decisions and human activities, the wellbeing of Nature is primary.

All must speak out for the needs of nature and our Mother Earth as a whole. It is our responsibility to live within the natural order that is sacred to all life on earth. We must redraw the boundaries of the economy to bring them into line with ecological limits and the common sense science of planetary boundaries. Nature’s needs are also our own and must be elevated and protected by legal rights, and maintained through life-sustaining systems of exchange and reciprocity.

Editorial: Don’t stop with SAFEBOR to protect Santa Fe (via Gainesville Sun)

In a new editorial today by the Gainesville Sun Editorial Board, they summarize the current efforts to rebalance the power between corporations and the people’s commons:

If corporations are now being treated like people under the law, why not rivers?
Alachua County voters might be asking themselves that question when they head to the polls next fall. Environmental advocates are seeking to put an initiative called the Santa Fe River Bill of Rights, aka SAFEBOR, on the November 2020 ballot. . . .

. . . If voters want to reverse the damage being done to the Santa Fe and other parts of our environment, they shouldn’t stop with SAFEBOR. Voters must start treating every election like a referendum on the environment, choosing local, state and federal candidates accordingly.

Gainesville Sun Editorial Board, September 8, 2019

You can read the rest of the editorial here.

Legal system isn’t set up to protect environment (via Gainesville Sun)

Check out this new Gainesville Sun article by Lucinda Faulkner Merritt, who writes:

Our laws have historically been written and interpreted to give precedence to business and commerce, to private property rights, to the idea of legal “standing,” and to the ability of state and federal laws to preempt local laws.

In particular, the legal concept of “standing” makes it almost impossible to argue for the restoration, protection and preservation of whole ecosystems (such as the Santa Fe River) unless you own all the land where those ecosystems exist. That’s because those ecosystems have no inherent rights of their own, hence no legal “standing.”

Lu Merritt, Sept. 2, 2019, Gainesville Sun

Lu Merritt goes on to raise some excellent questions regarding what our legal system can and cannot do in protecting our local commons, and suggests some next steps in where we should go from here. You can find the article at the Gainesville Sun.