Lawmakers try again to establish clean environment as fundamental right

Proposal would put an amendment to state’s constitution before voters

By: - November 8, 2021 6:45 am

Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez speaks during a rally on Oct. 29 calling for UNM to divest from fossil fuels. (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)

Legislators plan to reintroduce a measure asking New Mexicans to vote on an amendment to the state’s constitution that would establish clean water and air as a fundamental right on par with existing rights like freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez’s environmental priority for the 2022 legislative session is getting the green amendment on the ballot for voters. The Albuquerque Democrat said every part of the country will experience different effects of the climate crisis. 

And in New Mexico, that will be water.

“We don’t have enough water,” she told a crowd gathered at a fossil fuel divestment rally last week. “There are water rights on paper that there simply is no wet water for.”

Sedillo Lopez is one of 10 current and former elected officials who signed onto a complaint filed last month against the UNM Foundation, alleging that the board violates state law by continuing to invest in oil and gas. Divestment alone will not be the solution to the climate crisis, she said.

Complaint: UNM Foundation invests in fossil fuels while its board members work in the industry

“We’re going to have to look at regenerative soil,” she said. “We’re going to have to look at everything that we do and think about its impact on climate change.”

Considering environmental impacts of government decisions is one of the main parts of the Green Amendment proposal co-sponsored by Sedillo Lopez and three other state lawmakers in the last session. Like many other bills, it died in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“It’s not too late,” Sedillo Lopez said. “We can reverse it, and we can change things.”

Water is life

On Sept. 8, a legislative panel held a hearing on the proposed Green Amendment from Maya van Rossum, founder of Green Amendments for the Generations, and one of its board members Terry Sloan (Diné/Hopi), director of Southwest Native Cultures.

The Green Amendment would give people now and in the future the right to clean air, land and water by restricting government power to make decisions without respecting that right, van Rossum said.

The bill would make it a right of the people of the state to “a clean and healthy environment, including water, air, soil, flora, fauna, ecosystems and climate, and to the protection of the natural, cultural, scenic and healthful qualities of the environment.”

Sloan said passing the Green Amendment is a “no-brainer.”

Water is life, and it sustains life like humans to grow healthy natural food. Clean air, clean land and clean water is a must.

– Terry Sloan, director of Southwest Native Cultures

He asked lawmakers if they would eat chile, corn or watermelons that were grown using water contaminated with radioactivity or byproducts from oil and gas production.

“I would think not,” he said.

Van Rossum pointed to Montana and Pennsylvania, which have already adopted their own Green Amendments. She explained how such measures strengthen existing environmental protection law and can affect future laws.

New Mexico’s Green Amendment would similarly make the state and its political subdivisions the trustee of the natural resources of New Mexico, required to “conserve, protect and maintain these resources for the benefit of all New Mexicans, including present and future generations.”

She contrasted it with the National Environmental Policy Act, which only requires the government to collect information about environmental impacts and does not require officials to use that info in their decision-making.

Broken treaties, broken promises

State Rep. Patricia Roybal Caballero said the Green Amendment would be one way to redress centuries of broken promises on the part of the U.S. government against Native people in New Mexico.

“We are trustees,” she said. “That word is very, very important. That word was meant to be upheld in the treaty relationships when they were entered upon. And that word ‘trustee’ has been violated, historically, multiple times.”

Environmental rights are human rights and civil rights, she said, and so governments are obligated to recognize and protect environmental rights as absolute and non-negotiable. She said it is imperative that lawmakers put the question on the ballot because they represent Native communities.

“Having these types of constitutional protections will do in New Mexico what the United States government has not done on a grander scale,” she said.

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Austin Fisher
Austin Fisher

Austin Fisher is a journalist based in Santa Fe. He has worked for newspapers in New Mexico and his home state of Kansas, including the Topeka Capital-Journal, the Garden City Telegram, the Rio Grande SUN and the Santa Fe Reporter. Since starting a full-time career in reporting in 2015, he’s aimed to use journalism to lift up voices that typically go unheard in public debates around economic inequality, policing and environmental racism.

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