By Joseph Bonasia, Florida Rights of Nature Network
All Floridians should know about a historic ballot initiative in Orange County. It’s Charter Question #1: Prohibiting Pollution of all Waters of Orange County, including the Wekiva and the Econlockhatchee Rivers.
The first of its kind in Florida and the first such countywide effort in the nation, it is the most important environmental ballot initiative in the United States this November.
The Invading Sea and Florida newspapers recently ran an op-ed by wildlife biologist Bill Frankenberger entitled “Floridians are failing at protecting the state’s overwhelmed environment.”
In it, he identified some of the environmental concerns all Floridians are familiar with: the explosion of red tides and blue-green algae blooms, the draining of our springs and aquifers by big corporations, the “totally useless” M-CORES project that makes money for road-builders and developers but which will wreak havoc on rural lifestyles, agricultural operations, and wetlands.
“There are good environmental organizations trying to beat this thing, but it’s not enough,” he wrote. “We can win some small battles but have a hard time with the big ones, unfortunately. Yes, we need help.”
Over the past five decades, the state has issued 23,000 permits to polluters, granting them the legal right to harm waterways and ecosystems, but we have no right to clean water and a healthy environment.
It’s outrageous, but not shocking, not when one understands that it is the deep-pocketed polluters who pull the strings in Tallahassee. They contribute significantly to the political campaigns of candidates and in return get the laws and regulations that benefit them, not us and not nature.
Furthermore, this is just one piece of the puzzle. Since 1809, corporations have fought for and enjoyed an ever-expanding list of rights, rights we normally associate with people. For example, it was in 1888 that the Supreme Court declared corporations are persons entitled to equal protection and due process under the Fourteenth Amendment, the major provision of which granted citizenship to former slaves.
In the succeeding 42 years, the Fourteenth Amendment was used 28 times to defend the rights of Black Americans. It was used 312 times to defend the rights of corporations, and, as noted in We the Corporations, a National Book Award Finalist, was “transformed into a sword [they wielded] to strike at unwanted regulations.”
We see the results in our polluted waterways and our limited abilities to protect them.
Prohibiting Pollution of all Waters of Orange County, including the Wekiva and the Econlockhatchee Rivers is the help Mr. Frankenburger says we need. It gives citizens the ability to effectively fight a system tilted against us.
This amendment would install into law the rights of these long-polluted rivers and all other waterways in Orange County to exist, flow, be free of pollution, and maintain a healthy ecosystem. It will give citizens the right to clean water and the legal standing to defend these rights and the rights of these waterways in court.
Implicit in this law is the recognition that if people and nature don’t have certain rights, they can’t be protected against corporations that do. This law will change that by placing nature’s rights and people’s rights on equal legal footing with corporate rights.
Rights provide the highest protection under law. The Orange County Charter Review Commission, which placed the amendment on the ballot, has realized that nothing less is needed for the citizens and waterways in Orange County.
Because nothing less is needed for all citizens and waterways in Florida, there are already similar initiatives nascent elsewhere in the state, and there are candidates campaigning with similar laws in their platforms.
When Orange County voters pass this historic charter amendment, they will set a precedent that citizens in other municipalities and counties are waiting to follow.
Joseph Bonasia is the Southwest Florida Regional Director of the Florida Rights of Nature Network, Inc.
“The Invading Sea” is the opinion arm of the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a collaborative of news organizations across the state focusing on the threats posed by the warming climate.