Part of the 2012 Sustainability Lecture Series
Sustainability Researcher, UCI Environment Institute; Board Member, EarthRights International
In the United States, there is no unifying federal law establishing sustainability as an organizing principle in our environmental, social and economic relations. Rather, at present, sustainability makes its way into our legal frameworks outside of the federal legislative process. After touching on innovative municipal and state initiatives, this lecture highlights the unexpected force that indigenous communities and peoples’ organizations play, both here and abroad, in driving legal developments in sustainability.
Drawing upon Reyes’s work with a rural environmental legal assistance center in Palawan, Philippines, the lecture explains a multi-tiered approach to enforcing existing Pilipino sustainability law through legislative advocacy, litigation, popular education, and direct action. Reyes’s subsequent work in solidarity with the rural indigenous U’wa community in Colombia demonstrates the limitations of this model when no comparable national sustainability directive exists, and in the context of corporate attempts at extreme energy extraction and civil war. The lecture concludes with an analysis of how some indigenous and rural communities in Burma, Nigeria, Peru, and along the Mekong are using the multi-tiered approach in similarly fraught political climates with greater success by bringing claims of environmental and human rights abuses by energy corporations to the attention of U.S. courts through the federal Alien Tort Statute. The lecture provides a timely overview of the Alien Tort cases as the United States Supreme Court this week hears oral arguments in a case that is widely anticipated to decide whether corporations can indeed be held liable under the Alien Tort Statute. Such cases represent the cutting edge of sustainability law where no meaningful environmental and human rights protections exist.