Our natural environment is the foundation of our existence. The planet and its natural ecosystems are the true commons of humanity. But according to the widely accepted and alarming concept of the “tragedy of the commons,” individuals acting solely and rationally in their own self-interest will ultimately deplete a shared resource even when it is clear that it is not in anyone’s long-term interest for this to happen.
For most of human history, the world’s abundance was too overwhelming for people to realize this truth on a global scale. That must change—and is changing. We must reject a culture founded on pure self-interest and embrace a culture founded on respect, responsibility, justice, and the inherent dignity of living things and natural places.
As the writer and farmer Wendell Berry has said, “there are no sacred and unsacred places; there are only sacred and desecrated places.” We must ask: “What does this earth require of us if we want to continue to live on it?”
Despite modern technology, our air, water, and food are still drawn from the natural environment. The environment remains by far the largest source of wealth-generation, especially in a time of rising prices for fossil fuels, metals, and commodity agriculture.
Wealthy and privileged communities have found ways to protect the health of their environments while still enjoying the fruits of natural resource development projects—but they have too often done so at the expense of poorer, marginalized communities, shifting destructive or risky practices that they would never allow in their own backyards. This is so even though these communities—including many indigenous and rural communities—often maintain a far more direct, interdependent, and even spiritual relationship to the environment at risk.
From an environmental and economic perspective, this leads to delusional misapprehension about the true costs of these practices. From a human rights perspective, it is simply an intolerable double standard. Through its counsel, consulting, and communications practices, Forum Nobis helps individuals and communities use the tools of international law and human rights to fight this double standard and ensure their equal right to:
- a clean and healthy environment;
- the protection of culturally or economically important or sacred places;
- robust consultation, participation, and free, prior, and informed consent rights regarding natural resource development projects;
- in cases of already existing environmental harm, environmental remediation to the maximum extent possible;
- just compensation for environmental harm and related human suffering;
- due interest-sharing and other benefit arrangements.
In addition to the fundamental environmental rights held by all people, indigenous and other protected communities have important additional rights under international law—and, increasingly, national laws—that arise from their fundamental right to self-determination, their historical tenure on traditional lands and territories, and their established record as sustainable, intergenerational stewards of lands and natural resources.
Indigenous and other communities have the right to seek formal legal protection of their land tenure (sometimes called “native title”), to “maintain and strengthen their distinctive spiritual relationship with their [lands],” and to control or participate in “the conservation and protection of the environment and the productive capacity of their lands.” Through their right to self-determination and exercise of territorial autonomy, protected peoples also have a range of important rights to cultural autonomy, as well as the right to resist any act which has “the aim or effect of depriving [their] integrity [as] distinct peoples, or of their cultural values or ethnic identities.”
Forum Nobis works with indigenous and other protected communities to understand the extent to which national and international laws can protect their rights, and to develop strategies and approaches for articulating and advocating for those rights in a variety of forums.
Forum Nobis also works with project partners to provide a wide range of technical assistance on complex cases that involve establishing and maintaining traditional land tenure, protected cultural practices, and/or the exercise of territorial autonomy and self-determination.