Marine Calmet, expert in environmental law: 'We need to find new models of taking action to build the society of the future'

·5-min read
Everywhere in the world, people are rising up to protect their 'zone to defend.' We take a look at the ways in which citizens are fighting, with environmental lawyer Marine Calmet.

From the proposed airport at Notre-Dame-des-Landes and the nuclear waste site in Bure -- both in France -- to the "Montagne d'Or" gold mine project in French Guiana and the Belo Monte dam in Brazil, all around the world local populations are rising up to block the paths of big industries and protect their natural surroundings.

Here's a look at some of the ways that citizens can make a stand, with Marine Calmet, a French lawyer, specializing in environmental law.

In the summer of 2019, 150 French citizens were randomly selected to take part in a citizen assembly with the ambitious task of formulating concrete proposals to the government, in the aim of creating new legislation to give the country the means of attaining the objectives outlined in the Paris Agreement.

This initiative was known as the Citizens Convention for Climate. Marine Calmet, a lawyer specializing in the environment and indigenous peoples' rights, followed the whole process from the outset. She was first interviewed as an expert to provide information for the assembly to reflect on, before accompanying the members of the assembly ahead of negotiations with government ministers. Unfortunately, the proposals from the Convention's members were largely scaled down. In particular, the flagship measure of creating an ecocide offense.

So how can France fill its legal void, outlined by Marine Calmet in her book " Devenir gardiens de la nature " [Becoming guardians of nature], published in March 2021 by Éditions Tana? What solutions are available to citizens who want to take action and get their voices heard when it comes to climate-related matters that affect them directly? ETX Studio caught up with Marine Calmet to find out.

Tell us about the "citizen protector of the living" status that you promote through Wild Legal, the interactive legal program that you co-founded.

We work on the assumption that the law is a very interesting tool for obtaining justice and that you have to use innovative procedures. We are notably working on the case of red mud pollution off the coast of Marseille, which we are trying to get recognized as an ecocide, because it has led to the destruction of the marine ecosystem in the bay of Cassis. This is the kind of case that's won on all fronts: not just in the courthouse, but also on the street. The law and [citizen] mobilization really go hand in hand.

For me, it's important to say that, because there is a cultural change to obtain, a realization or awakening that would change our society profoundly. Today, there are projects that endanger nature and ecosystems, against which we should of course be opposed. But, to me, it also seems crucial to think about what comes next.

Because it's also this mechanism of thought that will allow us to replace the functioning of the world as it currently is. We must be capable of looking forward and expressing what we would like to see tomorrow. The projects that are being developed around sustainable agriculture are, in my view, a good example, because they're fighting against the destruction of nature, while also seeking to build new, more positive models.

Are there any legal models founded on the rights of nature elsewhere in the world from which the French legal system could draw inspiration?

There are some that I really like: the model of a protocol for indigenous consultations, which has developed in Brazil, notably with the fight against the major dam at Belo Monte. In seeing that they weren't being listened to by the drivers of these big projects, the [indeginous] peoples started to write their own consultation protocols, outlining the way in which they wished to be consulted on each project, each political decision that could have an impact on their life.

With this approach, the collective is placed at the heart of the action -- we rationalize together, as a group, and not as individuals. I think that this way of working is essential because it represents the future of a participative democracy. The idea of the Citizens' Convention for Climate [a citizens' assembly in France], which is a real democratic singularity, was originally very good because it showed that we can find other ways of progressing together, of building a democracy that's more suited to our lands.

Who are the guardians of nature that you talk about in your book?

The citizens that I call guardians of nature are people who emancipate themselves from human laws to make us understand that there are laws governed by nature that humans cannot remove themselves from. Science shows us, for example, that the rules that value growth and profit to the detriment of the rest are not coherent with the laws of physics and biology, as this disrupts the planet to such an extent that they are in the process of making it inhabitable.

People who favor the intangible laws of nature, by centering the protection of human rights at the heart of the living community, have understood this. The rights of nature are much larger than the anthropocentric systems that we have created. They are granted to the guardians of nature, for example, to the Maori people of New Zealand with the Whanganui River, or the Atrato River in Colombia. It's about being part of a drive to make decisions, to be part of the action. In France too, we can see that inhabitants are the best guardians of their territories.

It is urgent to re-establish a balance between democratic power and the power of citizens, sidelined for a long time in the decisions that nevertheless affect them first and foremost. The French National Assembly is, for example, not very representative of the general interest, because the people who sit in it are, for the most part, the privileged of our societies. The status of guardian of nature is necessary if we want to reform our institutions, which today do not allow us to rise to the challenges of our century.

This interview has been translated from French.

Léa Drouelle