Rights of Nature is a new legal paradigm that is gaining momentum in Ohio, across the United States and around the world. More than 30 communities in the U.S. have adopted Rights of Nature laws, which recognize the rights of ecosystems to exist and flourish, protecting communities and nature from increasing environmental threats. Similar laws and court decisions are in place in New Zealand, Ecuador, Colombia, and other countries.
In February, Toledo residents overwhelmingly adopted the Lake Erie Bill of Rights — the first law in this country recognizing the rights of a distinct ecosystem.
This week, The Daily Show featured the people of Toledo behind the Lake Erie Bill of Rights, determined to protect their only water source from harmful corporate activities, by using Rights of Nature. In response, the state of Ohio is cracking down to stop them.
The language in the Ohio budget bill creates a section (2305.011) that defines “nature” and “ecosystem” in law, and goes on to ban legal actions on behalf of or by nature or ecosystems.
The budget reads: “Nature or any ecosystem does not have standing to participate in or bring an action in any court of common pleas. No person, on behalf of or representing nature or an ecosystem, shall bring an action in any court of common pleas.”
Since 2012, nearly three dozen Rights of Nature initiatives have qualified for city and county ballots, and have faced varying levels of obstruction. Fourteen measures have been removed from the ballot and not allowed a vote, five have been passed into law by voters.
“When peoples’ movements work to expand rights, we see legislative efforts to stop them,” said Tish O’Dell, the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund’s (CELDF) organizer. “It is a pattern that has been repeated over and over. In recent years when LGBTQ+ marriage equality was gaining momentum, reactionary states began to ban it. Today, it is the Ohio legislature, desperate to stop another expansion of rights. This won't work either. The Ohio legislature is on the wrong side of history — the Rights of Nature train has already left the station.”
Despite the legislature’s attempts at dissuading the movement, residents of Williams County gathered 2,077 valid signatures to place a new county charter on the November ballot that would recognize the rights of the Michindoh Aquifer and protect it from privatization. They are facing opposition from the state and common pleas court to keep their initiative off the ballot.
Columbus residents are also circulating petitions for a charter amendment to protect their water source, and seven other Ohio communities are fighting to protect their civil rights to propose such laws, against the state.
Despite the language hindering Rights of Nature efforts, the budget bill did include Lake Erie priorities as well as tax policy changes considered beneficial for farmers.
The state is earmarking $172 million over two years for the “H2Ohio” fund, which DeWine proposed to pay for programs to protect Lake Erie and other state waterways from pollution
The H2Ohio fund will be used for agricultural, community and nature water projects to address water quality. In addition to H2Ohio, the budget also includes support for soil and water conservation districts in the Western Lake Erie Basin and funding for the Healthy Lake Erie program to promote 4R nutrient stewardship practices.
“We thank the Ohio House, Ohio Senate and Gov. DeWine’s Administration for working with all stakeholders to address water quality,” said Trish Cunningham, Ohio Soybean Association (OSA) policy committee chairperson. “Water quality has been a high priority for our organization for many years and we believe that H2Ohio is a step in the right direction. I’m also proud to see tax policies that will benefit family farmers who have been hit especially hard this year due to the weather and crop prices.”
In addition, the soybean growers group applauded these provisions in the budget bill:
• Clarification and expansion of qualified immunity related to existing nuisance protection laws
• Increase from three to four years the amount of time that soil test results are valid for purposes of inclusion in a voluntary nutrient management plan approved by ODA
• Friendlier tax policies toward small businesses.