As everyone knows, the planet is hurting.
The ice caps are melting and Hawai‘i is threatened with rising seas, flooding and coastal erosion.
Habitats are changing at an alarming rate, endangering native species while invasives proliferate. Oceans are acidifying and warming, causing Kaua‘i’s coral reefs to bleach and die. The neighboring Great Pacific Garbage Patch is nearly 2,000 times the size of Kaua‘i, and by 2050 there is expected to be more plastic in the ocean than fish.
Mass-scale monoculture and pesticide usage endangers the island’s environment, health and livelihoods. Rainfall patterns are changing, forcing farmers and communities to face drought and deluge at an increasing rate. Islands like Hawai‘i, providing habitat to more than 10,000 endemic species, 400 endangered species and 1,200 miles of coral reefs, are certainly not the primary instigator of the climate crisis, but will continue to face the most devastating consequences of it.
Furthermore, indigenous attitudes towards the environment continue to be left out of state, federal and international management plans.
OK, we’ve all heard it before, and we surely are doing what we can to reverse this trend.
The state of Hawai‘i has the nation’s most-ambitious, renewable-energy target, has banned coral-harming sunscreens, and aims to recognize and incorporate Native Hawaiian rights in modern law.
Kaua‘i County has taken additional steps: banning Styrofoam food containers, protecting certain endangered species, and achieving more than 56% of renewable energy sources in 2019. What other ways can Kaua‘i County be a leader in the environmental movement, while strengthening Native Hawaiian rights and livlihoods?
An innovative legal and cultural strategy called the “rights of nature” offers community-based environmental and cultural protection for the people of Kaua‘i. Currently led by indigenous leaders, legal experts, civil society and youth from around the world, rights of nature revolves around the truth that nature possesses inherent value and rights.
Just as humans have rights such as free speech and a fair trial, nature has the right to exist, flourish and thrive. A river, for example, might have the right to flow and the right to exist free of pollution, harmful pesticides and heavy metals. Corals, on the other hand, might have the right to exist free of toxic runoff and of destructive ship anchors.
Modern laws have created a boundary that separates humans from nature, allowing for widespread exploitation and degradation. Currently, our nation’s laws consider nature to be property or a resource, a rightless object that we own and exploit to our own desires.
The environmental laws in the United States that are meant to protect nature — Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act, to name a few — are not effectively addressing the climate crisis, and they lack indigenous perspectives.
They have slowed but have not stopped extinction, pollution, extraction and damage from occurring in Hawai‘i and around the country and world. If we are to see our way through the looming global catastrophe, we must cultivate and enforce greater environmental protection that falls in line with local goals and ideology.
By reincorporating Native Hawaiian environmental ethics into modern law, recognizing nature’s rights has the potential to strengthen native livelihoods and representation on Kaua‘i. This movement aims to provide nature with legal guardians, similar to the traditional Hawaiian konohiki system, responsible for representing nature in policy and legal matters.
Although hard to imagine now, modern law originally reserved legal rights for only white men, meaning racial minorities and women were treated as property to be owned.
The scope of rights-bearing entities has justly evolved to include all humans, and has even been expanded to include corporations, many of which knowingly pollute and destroy the environment.
Now, communities around the world are realizing the value in extending basic rights to nature. The movement to recognize nature’s rights is rapidly growing, and legislation has already passed in more than 14 countries, including New Zealand, Ecuador, and dozens of communities and tribal nations in the United States. Kaua‘i has the opportunity to be a leader of this emerging movement and cultivate meaningful social and environmental change.
We at Hanalei River Heritage Foundation and Earth Law Center are beginning an effort to gauge the local interest in recognizing the rights of nature here on Kaua‘i.
We believe that recognizing nature’s legal rights will strengthen the ability for nature and Native Hawaiian culture and values to thrive on the island.
As part of this campaign, Earth Law Center has prepared a document specific to one endangered but vital Kaua‘i river, the Hanalei River, that describes rights of nature in more detail and its relation to Native Hawaiian environmental ethics.
We invite you to read the Hanalei River document and to provide feedback, questions, or pledge support for this legal and social movement at earthlawcenter.org/hanalei-river.
It is our goal to gain community input and involvement on this campaign, and to pursue this innovative legal and cultural strategy in accordance with the community’s wishes.
Addison Luck is a Kilauea resident and earth law manager at the Earth Law Center.