People’s Tribunal finds Chevron guilty of violating rights of nature
on October 8, 2014
A panel of judges unanimously found Chevron guilty Sunday of operating its Richmond refinery “in violation of the principles of environmental justice and the rights of nature.”
But the judges didn’t represent a state or federal court – rather, they were judges on a “People’s Tribunal” organized by environmental advocates.
The Bay Area Rights of Nature Ethics Tribunal, convened by the Bay Area Rights of Nature Alliance (BARoNA), focused on the impact of the massive 2,900-acre refinery on surrounding communities, and called on expert witnesses to build a case against Chevron’s continued operation in Richmond.
In an expert testimony that was subsequently referenced several times by the tribunal judges, economist Marco Vangelisti said Chevron’s operations rely on an economic theory that also needs to be put on trial.
“The problem is that the market does not see the natural resources that are provided for free, nor does it see the cost of pollution,” Vangelisti said. “The market does not charge us for oxygen production or the cost of the oil in the ground; we just need to pay for the cost of extraction.”
Sunday’s tribunal drew an audience of about 100 people to an auditorium at Laney College in Oakland. The event was part of a broader environmental movement gaining global momentum – as evidenced in part by last month’s history-making attendance at the People’s Climate March in New York City and other solidarity events around the world. By bringing focus to local matters like Chevron’s Richmond refinery, BARoNA and the tribunal’s organizers hope to galvanize local residents and community groups to take notice of environmental justice issues.
Bill Twist, one of the five tribunal judges, emphasized the urgency of addressing climate change.
“In the last 50 to 100 years, we’ve become so powerful on this planet that Mother Nature can’t really tolerate us anymore,” said Twist, co-founder of the Pachamama Alliance, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that fights for indigenous rights in the Amazon basin. “We’re getting signs that we really need to wake up and look at the systems – the legal, economic and government systems – that we’ve created.”
BARoNA, which was formed in February, is part of an international alliance that advocates for the “rights of nature,” the idea that nature has inalienable rights in the same way that humans do as recognized by the United Nations.
The rights of nature have long been supported by – and a lived experience of – indigenous cultures around the world, and opposes the treatment of nature as property under the law. Advocates of the rights of nature argue that environmental protection laws only limit environmental destruction rather than protect the environment in ways that are sustainable long-term.
In 2008, Ecuador became the first country in the world to codify the Rights of Nature into its Constitution. Ecuador has been entangled in a 20-year legal battle with Chevron over allegedly polluting the Ecuadorian rain forest and devastating indigenous populations.
“The land doesn’t need us in order to survive, but we need everything from the earth in order to survive,” said Corrina Gould, a Chochenyo Ohlone representing Indian People Organizing for Change who testified as an expert witness at the hearing.
Other expert witnesses, including Stephanie Hervey and Andres Soto, spoke to their experiences with health problems after the 2012 Chevron Richmond refinery explosion and from living “in the shadow of Chevron.”
The hearing included a defense lawyer who spoke on behalf of Chevron. That role was played by environmental advocate Jeff Conant, in a Stephen Colbert-style parody of a corporate executive. Donning a suit and a light green shirt with a Nazi-style armband, Conant delivered an opening statement that railed against the “absurd, childish” notion of nature’s inalienable rights.
“It seems that in convening this charade, you have failed to grasp a basic fact: The energy economy is the very foundation of every advance that human civilization has made in the past 150 years,” Conant said. “But if you want to play ball, your local Chevron facility is as good a place to begin a game as any.”
The five-judge panel – composed of Bill Twist; Carl Anthony, co-founder of Oakland’s Breakthrough Communities Project; Courtney Cummings of Richmond’s Native American Wellness Center; Anuradha Mittal, founder and executive director of the Oakland Institute; and Brian Thomas Swimme, a professor of cosmology at the California Institute of Integral Studies – unanimously found Chevron and the fossil fuel industry in violation of the rights of nature.
Teacher and author Luisah Teish, a community member in attendance, said the tribunal imparted valuable information but seemed to be “speaking to the choir.”
“I’m concerned by how empty this room is,” Teish said at the conclusion of the tribunal. “This room should be jam-packed. We need to bring this information into the streets.”
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