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The Middle Of The World

By Sister Elise Garcia, OP

A firsthand account of an international summit in Ecuador bringing world leaders together to discuss rights of nature.

llustration by Bob Smith from Siemen's presentation at the Silver Springs Alliance Forum on January 28 in Ocala, Florida

Visiting Barry School of Law professor and Adrian Dominican Sister Patricia (Pat) Siemen, OP, J.D., and I traveled three hours by bus northeast from Quito, Ecuador, climbing winding roads up the highlands of the Andes mountains, past craggy canyons, hillside farms, and village settlements to reach Otavalo, joining other leaders of the emergent global “rights of nature” movement for a four-day summit. For the 50 participants, this was the last leg of a journey that began in Australia, India, the United Kingdom, South Africa, the United States, Switzerland, Spain, Canada, Romania, Argentina, Bolivia, or other parts of Ecuador.

En route we stopped at a roadside marker, noting Latitude 0°0’0” — La Mitad del Mundo (the middle of the world). This seemingly far-flung venue — for an urgent conversation about the precarious state of earth and our ill-considered relationship as humans to the very source of our being — could not have been better placed.

Other key leaders attending the summit, in addition to Sister Pat, included Indian physicist Vandana Shiva, South African lawyer and author Cormac Cullinan, North American indigenous environmental justice leader Tom Goldtooth, former Bolivian U.N. ambassador Pablo Solón, and U.S. community and environmental rights attorney Thomas Linzey.

Over the next few days, summit leaders exchanged ideas and strategies for shifting the current legal and economic construct that treats the natural world as property for human use to one that reflects the reality of our interconnectedness and interdependence with the natural world. They concluded the summit by framing a plan of action to focus global attention on recognizing rights of nature as a solution in an order of magnitude equal to the problem we face — the ravaging of our planet.

The plan calls for the establishment of a permanent World Tribunal on rights of nature, which was initiated the last day of the summit, and a week of global acts of Satyagraha — nonviolent resistance — beginning on October 2, Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday. It also calls for a commitment to sow the concept of rights of nature throughout the world among ecological, social justice, faith-based, farming, and other affinity groups.

Within days of returning from Ecuador, Sister Pat put the global message to work locally in a keynote speech before 300 people attending a forum at the College of Central Florida in Ocala’s Silver Springs. Until recently, Silver Springs was Florida’s largest first-magnitude spring, but its flow has fallen by a third while polluting nitrates have risen. Her talk was summed up in a headline in the next day’s Ocala Star Banner: “‘Earth needs new laws,’ 300 told at Silver Springs forum” (January 28, 2014).

Sister Pat is among the global movement’s earliest proponents. Alarmed by unrelenting ecological devastation and inspired by the late Passionist priest Thomas Berry’s writings on Earth jurisprudence, Sister Pat led the effort in the United States to introduce the concept of rights of nature to U.S. law schools.

In 2006, she founded the Center for Earth Jurisprudence — the first of its kind in the nation — at Barry University and St. Thomas University. In 2008, she founded the California-based Earth Law Center, whose director, Linda Sheehan, teaches summer classes in earth jurisprudence at Vermont Law School. Sister Pat believes the concept is a natural one for Catholics and other people of faith to embrace.

“Rights of nature language may not yet be widely known or adopted among Catholics, but it is premised on an idea with deep roots in our tradition — honoring creation,” Sister Pat said. “Mystics and theologians like Thomas Aquinas recognized creation as a sacred revelation of God — as God’s primordial Scripture. We have lost that sense of the sacred over the centuries,” Sister Pat said, “but it is being reclaimed — in our spirituality and our jurisprudence.”

Sister Elise D. García, OP, was sent to the summit by the leadership of the Adrian Dominican Sisters to find ways of engaging the congregation more deeply and broadly in the rights of nature movement that Sister Pat has helped lead. Sister Elise serves as the director of communication and technology for the Adrian Dominican Sisters.