Mari Margil Speaking at the Justice Begins With Seeds Conference

I had the opportunity to see Mari Margil, the Associate Director of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, speak at the recent Justice Begins with Seeds Conference in San Francisco. Her perspective on environmental regulation in the United States, and the ‘box of allowable activism’ that communities are forced to work within, is fascinating. Listen to the recording below. For more information about the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, visit their website.

Listen to Mari Margil Speak, and read the transcript.

For more information about the conference see San Francisco Justice Conference Plants A Seed.


I wonder if you’ve ever wondered why, as my organization has – for example why when you hear about environmental groups fighting factory farms or CAFOs, why are those fights about runoff and odor pollution and the size of chicken cages. Why aren’t those fights about whether tho factory farms should be able to exist at all? Where does that question go? And the communities we work with across the country wonder the same thing.

We were formed to help communities fight threats to the environment. Pretty simple idea. What we would do – we were formed in 1995 – and for the first several years of our organization being in place, we would help communities to do very conventional traditional kinds of environmental activism. Which meant when they were facing a proposal for a new incinerator or a low-level radioactive waste site, in their community, we would do what the conventional environmental activism tells us to do. Which is we would have to appeal the permit the state would issue to the corporation to site that facility in our community. I see some heads nodding, some of you have gone through that permit appeal process before.

And what we found was that in order to be successful in appealing the permit the state would issue to the corporation, our job was to help the community find where there were holes in the application process, where there were omissions in that permit application. For example where it was missing signatures, where they didn’t dot all the I’s cross all the t’s, where their environmental analysis was too old or insufficient. And we’d find out how that permit application was incomplete. Wonderful, victory. We’d go back and we’d have a victory party in those communities and we’d say we won, we were able to stop that threat from coming into our community. But what would happen? A month later, 2, 6 months later, the corporation would come back with a new and improved permit application filling all the holes and omissions we helped to identify for them. And what would happen then? Corporation could cite that incinerator, corporation could cite that low-level radioactive waste site. And we saw it happen over and over again. We work with communities that have come to our doorstep after going through that permit appeal process for a year, for two years, for 5 years, 7, 14 years, where a corporation would come back and back and back again and again and again until they could cite that project in the community. And the question our communities would have for us, and rightly so, is why. Why does it seem we can’t say no to this threat coming into our community, why don’t we seem to have that authority? Why when nestle wants to go into communities in New Hampshire when they call the New Hampshire department of environmental services, instead of the state environmental agency, remember environmental agency – saying yes Community X we’re going to help you protect your water and environment – instead what the state is doing is issuing permits to corporations to take their water. Even though we know the environmental harms that come with that, reduced lake levels, river flow decimated, fish populations harmed. Even when we know that’s what happens.

When communities in West Virginia are facing mountaintop removal mining that destroys rivers, streams, I’m hearing hissing over there, and other kinds of environmental harms, why is it these communities aren’t getting any help from their environmental protection agencies to stop that kind of harm from coming into their communities.

3:40 And why is it that when a community is facing a factory farm which we know causes river pollution, runoff, loss of small and family farms, when it decimates rural economies, when suicide is now the number one cause of death for farmers, why can’t we say no to those things? It doesn’t seem right.

We began to explore that question why. So we began to work with communities to say why can’t you say no, we’ve experienced this over and over again and it doesn’t seem to work the way we think it’s supposed to work. Why can’t communities just say no. why couldn’t a community for example pass a local ordinance that says we’re not going to allow factory farms here, why couldn’t it be that simple?

4:40 Through our work with our communities we’ve learned the structure of law and governance in this country are simply not designed to let us make these kinds of decisions for our communities. In fact they’re designed to allow the very things we don’t want to come into our communities, whether that be a factory farm, sewage sludge applied to our farm lands, whether it be incinerators or blowing the tops off our mountains, whether it be natural gas drilling and fracking, our environmental laws are designed to actually allow them to come in and then to regulate how they can take place in our communities.

5:15 Thus, our environmental laws are written to actually regulate harm. To allow harm. And perhaps restrict that harm a little bit. And in fact as advocates and communities, what we found was that under this environmental regulatory structure, we’re stuck. We’re stuck in something we call a box of allowable activism. And in that box of allowable activism when we’re faced with a proposal of a factory farm for example all we’re allowed to do is fight about runoff pollution. Or fight about how big chicken cages can be. We’re not allowed to ask the question about whether the factory farm should be allowed to come in at all. And it’s within that box, I feel like Madonna, it’s within that box of allowable activism that communities get stuck, because if they step outside of that box, what happens? They get smacked. And what do we mean they get smacked? It means that a corporation whether it be Smithfield or Hatfield or Nestle or Walmart or whatever, a corporation will claim that a community in trying to stop it from coming in and citing in their community is violating that corporation’s constitutional rights to set up that factory farm, or extract your water, or blow the top off your mountain. It’s a violation of a corporation’s constitutional rights.

7:30 Or worse yet they’ll run directly into their own government. Which says that a community trying to stop a factory farm is preempted by state law which legally authorizes agribusiness corporations to come in and farm in your community. And that any community that tries to step outside that box of community activism, tries to stop that factory farm from coming in, is legally stepping outside its authority. The community is outside its authority when it tires to stop sludge, keep its water from being taken from its community, stop a factory farm from coming in. and you know what happened when we explained this to communities, and we worked with hundreds of communities in the northeast, in Washington state, here in California, across the country – increasingly communities are saying to us – we don’t care. We don’t care if the state says we can’t do it. We don’t care if the corporations tell us it would violate their rights if we say no to a factory farm. We don’t care and we refuse to get stuck in that box. Because if we don’t refuse the only result that’s going to come is a factory farm. The only thing that’s going to happen is our mountain’s going to be blown off. The only thing that’s going to happen is our water’s going to be taken and we’re not going to have anything to drink any more.

8:20 And so we’re working with communities now that are rejecting this structure of law. Because it means to them they get the factory farm if they work inside of it. So they’re stepping outside of it. And what does that look like? They’ve basically said, we’re no longer going to accept what is. We’re no longer going to accept it as-is. Instead we’re working with them to begin to craft and adopt new structures of law for how things need to be. The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund has worked with 125 communities from across the country who are no longer willing to accept things this way, and we’ve assisted them to draft and adopt new structures of law. In the form of local ordinances which authorize them to decide what can happen in their community. This began first about 10 years ago with helping communities to say no. say no to factory farms that were coming into Pennsylvania, when Smithfield and Hatfield foods wanted to set up in central rural Pennsylvania, we don’t care if the state says we can’t do this, we don’t care if Smithfield’s going to sue us. We don’t care because if we don’t say no we’re going to get that farm and we’re going to destroy our rural economy, we’re going to destroy our rural environment. And so we helped the first dozen communities in the nation to adopt laws banning corporations from farming in those communities.

10:00 From there, we began to get phone calls from communities that were facing something called the land application of sewage sludge. We used to dump our sewage sludge into the ocean and what happened is we created a giant dead zone in the ocean, and by the end of the 80s congress said, that’s not a good idea. And we had to find something to do with our sewage sludge. So now, 60% of it is spread onto our farmland. The land that grows our crops – for livestock – and communities in Pennsylvania started calling us and saying, we saw what you did for factory farms, you helped communities say no, can we do the same thing for sewage sludge? And we said sure. And now we’ve assisted over 80 communities in Pennsylvania to ban corporations from dumping sludge in those communities.

10:52 And these are first in the nation laws that begin to turn that box of allowable activism, that structure of law, on its head. And beginning to rewrite the laws in those communities to begin to build sustainability.

11: 06 We started getting calls from New England – where communities in New Hampshire and Maine were facing Nestle and USA Springs and other water bottling corporations who wanted to come in and stick giant straws into their aquifers and take out hundreds of thousands of gallons of water a day. And the communities understood that if that began to happen they could no longer function. They wouldn’t have water for their crops, they wouldn’t have clean drinking water, they wouldn’t have water at all. And they said, what you’ve done with factory farms, sludging, can we apply that to water extraction. And we said yes. And now we’ve assisted the first communities in Maine and NH and now Massachussetts to ban corporations from taking their water and ban corporations from privatizing their water infrastructure.

12:00 These laws in essence assert the communities rights to decide what happens in their communities, it asserts their right to local self-government where they live. And they frontally challenge necessarily those legal barriers which stand in the way of communities saying no. no to factory farms sludging water extraction and other threats. These laws are about dismantling each of these legal doctrines, including corporation constitutional rights and state and federal preemption of communities. Those legal doctrines which define the sides of that box of allowable activism. And in so doing, those laws those legal doctrines that box, prohibit communities from protecting their environment and achieving sustainability. And now the work is going further. Which is to say we’re now working with communities, we’re moving from just helping them to say no to things that threaten their environment like factory farming and sludging. And helping them to not only say no, but begin to say yes.

13:00 Yes to those things they do want as well as saying no to the things that they don’t. this began in Pittsburgh. Last year we got a call from the city of Pittsburgh in western Pennsylvania. It’s a city of about 300,000 and if you’re not familiar with that area of the country, they sit on top of the massive Marcellus Shale natural gas formation. It comes from New York state into PA OH the Virginias and Maryland. And communities are facing the prospect of drilling and the practice known as fracking. And they’re drilling these drill wells right through the aquifers through this region. And it’s destroying drinking water, destroying aquifers. More and more communities are rising up to say we cannot allow this in our communities. We got a call from the city of Pittsburgh and we helped them last year to craft an ordinance which not only bans corporations – the very first law in the country to ban corporations from being able to drill in those communities – but in addition the law says yes. It begins to put in place a structure of law where the community gets to define what sustainability is going to look like in the city of Pittsburgh. And let’s not make any bones about – Pittsburgh is not what I would call a liberal bastion.

This is a factory town, a place where mining has deep roots, this is not a place you would expect to be pioneering and at the forefront of the environmental movement but in fact Pittsburgh is the first community in the US to adopt what we are calling a community bill of rights and what that means is the community has the right for example to clean water, a right to a healthy environment, and in addition rights of ecosystems within the community like the Monongahela river, to exist and to flourish. And a corporation that wants to come in and drill in the city of Pittsburgh, and there were already leases sold for drilling within the city – it’s not that this is not a problem for them – there were leases that were sold that would have drilling occur under cemeteries in the city. And the community has said no to that. And so this community bill of rights means not only are they banning corporations from drilling within the city, if a corporation were to try drilling within the city it would be in violation of the rights of the people, the rights of the community, and the rights of the ecosystems within the city of Pittsburgh as well. So we’ve now begun to engage with communities on issues of food sustainability and food sovereignty. So in addition to our work helping communities to stop things like factory farming and sludging, which have a tremendously negative effect on their ability to achieve sustainable food production, we’re now moving to the yes. Moving from the no to saying yes. So over the past year in response to requests from communities in Maine and Washington state and other places, we crafted something we’re calling the Food Bill of Rights. It’s a model ordinance for other cities. And it defines what sustainable food systems would look like in those communities. That is, what a community does want for itself while simultaneously saying no to the things a community does not want. Those activities, practices that would interfere with the ability of that community, right of that community, to have sustainable food.

16:25 The Food Bill of Rights, and I have a handout, that I shall pass out later – includes the following – includes the right to be free from GMOs, (clapping) it includes the right to seed heritage. It includes the right to clean water, and ability to access water. It includes the right to access local foods grown produced and processed in and around your own community. And it recognizes that we cannot build sustainable food systems in our communities so long as the agribusiness industry along with our government are able to continue to define what food production looks like in our communities. Which means that necessarily the Food Bill of Rights model ordinance frontally challenges those structures of law which grant corporations the right to override local democratic decision making. And which allow higher levels of government – our state and federal government – to preempt our local laws, and begin to put in place laws which protect the environment and achieve sustainability.

17:40 We see this organizing – on factory farming, sludging, water extraction, drilling, on fracking, and now on food sovereignty and sustainability – as building a new grassrights – grassroots excuse me – grassrights – I’m coining that you can’t use that. It’s patented, that’s right. We see this organizing as necessarily building, a grassroots, civil rights movement. And it’s a movement that’s aimed at building and achieving sustainability and democracy. Because we see those as necessarily being hand in hand with one another. You can’t have one without the other. So we think this necessarily means putting in place new structures of laws, abolishing old structures of law, such that the rights of people, the rights of communities and the rights of nature are held up above and over the rights of corporations.

And that’s all I have.

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