A Seventh Generation Amendment
by Winona LaDuke
November 15, 2002

The dances of the continent's native peoples are older than the laws of the United States. Credit: http://whisperingeagle.tripod.com/whisperingeagleshome.
It is time to amend the US Constitution to preserve the commons for all of us. It’s time for a Common Property — or Seventh Generation — Amendment to the Constitution.

The preamble to the US Constitution declares as one of its purposes, to “secure the blessings of liberty, to ourselves and our posterity.” Should not those blessings include air fit to breathe, water decent enough to drink, and land which is as beautiful for our descendants as it was for our ancestors?

American public policy has come to reflect short-term interests, fiscal years, “deficit reduction” programs, and is increasingly absent of any intergenerational perspective. As a consequence, or by default, that which is collectively ours — oceans, air, rivers, water, forests, public lands — is often pilfered or degraded by a private interest.

Despite moves by the Clinton administration to strengthen our environmental laws, those laws still are no match for the destructive practices of private interests that poison our air, water and land. Our public policy is lagging behind our ability to destroy ourselves.

The 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska is only one example of the destruction of common property by private interests. Others include overfishing of common US waters by private companies and pollution of air by industry. We cannot let this go on.

Consider the challenge of industrial fishing. The nets of seafood conglomerate Tyson’s factory trawlers plunder the North Pacific Ocean with an “economic efficiency” that leaves little behind. One net can hold up to six jumbo jets in its grasp. Such fleets now dominate the industry. With 38,000 registered commercial fishing vessels on the seas, it’s ironic that only 60 boats catch 21 percent of total US catch. More ironic is the waste. Factory trawlers annually toss 580 million pounds of unwanted “by-catch” back into the ocean dead-as-a-doornail.

In the past decade, we’ve seen the collapse of the Atlantic haddock stocks, salmon stocks, and soon pollock stocks, all largely a result of “overfishing” and factory trawling. That collapse puts thousands of people out of work and costs US taxpayers millions in economic aid. The impact can last decades (if the fish recover at all).

The question might be asked: “What right does the factory trawling industry have to cause the collapse of an entire species of fish?”

Dioxin: A Threat to Life, Liberty and Happiness
Dioxin is another example. Dioxin is a true child of the Twentieth Century. Herbert Dow (Dow Chemical) created its chemical family in a laboratory in the 1900s and later became that household savior, chlorine bleach. Subsequent offspring have included most pesticides, solvents and plastics. Dioxin now appears through out economy and food chain.

The EPA has known of the serious health consequences of dioxin since the early 1970s, but has taken limited action largely a result of lobbying by groups like the Chlorine Council, the industry’s advocacy group. However, when the results of a huge EPA study, commenced in 1992, were released in 1996, the problems were shown to be worse than anticipated.

Nearly everyone in the country is already carrying a “body burden” of dioxin that is 500 times greater that the “acceptable risk” level for carcinogens. Dioxin can be considered a sort of environmental hormone that ravages the endocrine system, distorting cell growth. In men, dioxin elevates testosterone levels, reduces sperm counts, and leads to increased rates of diabetes. In the last 50 years, sperm counts have declined by more than 5 percent, while testicular cancer has tripled.

In women, dioxin seems to prompt endometriosis, a painful uterine disorder that now afflicts five million women a year. Dioxin exposure has also been linked to breast cancer, a diseased that has more than doubled since 1960. Pregnant women are especially vulnerable, since the daily level of dioxin intake is enough to cause long-term damage to fetuses, giving rise to birth defects, disrupted sexual development, and damage to the immune systems.

If you live in the Great Lakes region, your body burden of dioxin may be two to three times greater than that of someone living on the West Coast. Both weather patterns and clustering of chemical plants produce this additional exposure. Dioxin is a fat-soluble chemical, meaning it bioaccumulates up the food chain. For example, fish from Lake Michigan show levels of dioxin more than 100,000 times higher than the surrounding water, plants and sediment. However, two-thirds of the average American’s exposure to dioxin comes from milk, cheese and beef, a result of cows eating contaminated food crops.

A Prescription for Posterity
Now what’s the problem? The poisons in our air, water, and land and the cumulative impacts outstrip environmental laws of today. We are frequently facing a “catch up” situation at best. We don’t even know what the combined impact of complicated chemical soup is on our bodies, on the ecosystem nor, least of all, on future generations. Public policy is lagging behind our ability to destroy ourselves.

We need a Seventh Generation Amendment to insure the blessings of liberty to our posterity and ourselves. Today, the Fifth Amendment preserves our rights to private property and the protection of that property. Now the US legal system needs to establish a clear distinction between private property and common property, and both must be defended vigorously. If private property has found safe haven in the Fifth Amendment, where is common property equally protected?

Common property resources are those that are not or cannot, by their nature, be owned by an individual or a corporation, but are held by all people in common. These “blessings of liberty” envisioned in the Constitution should be used or enjoyed only in ways that do not impair the rights of others — including future generations — to use or enjoy them.

This is perhaps best reflected in the Iroquois Confederacy's maxim: "In our every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations."

The rights of the people to use and enjoy air, water, and sunlight are essential to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. These most basic human rights have been impaired by those who discharge toxic substances into the air or water. These rights are also damaged by those who cause a crash of our fish or destroy our oceans. Such “taking’ must be recognized as a fundamental wrong in our system of laws, just as a taking of private property is a fundamental wrong.

We should consider that Seventh Generation Amendment or Common Property Amendment to the Constitution that states: “the right of citizens of the United States to use and enjoy air, water, sunlight, and other renewable resources determined by the Congress to be common property shall not be impaired, nor shall such use impair their availability for the use of future generations.”

Winona LaDuke, the Green Party’s Vice-Presidential Candidate in 2000, is the program officer for the Seventh Generation Fund's Environmental Program and campaign director for the White Earth Land Recovery Project. LaDuke is also author of All Our Relations and Last Standing Woman.

This essay, reprinted from the
Winona LaDuke Reader [2002, Voyageur Press, 123 North Second Street, PO Box 338, Stillwater, MN 55082, (651) 430-2210, www.voyageurpress.com/], originally appeared in the October 4, 1996 issue of Ojibwe News. A shorter version appeared in Earth Island Journal. The Winona LaDuke Reader includes two articles that first appeared in the Earth Island Journal.

A Global Treaty for the Seventh Generation
A Treaty Initiative to Share the Genetic Commons was launched in February at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil. To date, more than 325 civil society organizations from over 50 countries have joined the initiative. The Treaty is based on two decades of resistances to corporate plans to patent life forms and to create for-profit monopolies over seeds, food and medicine.

The treaty arose as a response to an attempt by the US-based WR Grace company to obtain global patent rights to India’s neem tree. Poor villagers and city dwellers have freely used the neem for centuries alike for a wide range of medicinal and agricultural applications.

"All genetic material should be free and available to everyone," says Alexia Robinson of the US-based Foundation on Economic Trends. "The global gene pool is a shared legacy and, therefore, a collective responsibility…. [S]imply finding a gene in a plant or animal that has a certain trait should not be patentable."

The Treaty Initiative is an affirmation of the sacred integrity of Earth’s genetic inheritance and of our shared rights and duties to defend this integrity and to ensure that it is used for the benefit of all humanity and does not become the exclusive commercial monopoly of anyone. The Treaty attempts to affirm a “positive” rather than pose a “negative.”

The treaty text supports the sovereignty of nations and the rights of communities to exchange or withhold the genetic materials they hold in trust. The only prohibitions are not to destroy genetic diversity and not to claim - or allow others to claim - monopoly rights over germplasm. The primary aim of the Treaty is to stop the industrialized North from pirating the genetic inheritance of the biodiversity-rich South.

The Treaty Initiative to Share the Genetic Commons (Draft)

We proclaim these truths to be universal and indivisible;

That the intrinsic value of the Earth’s gene pool, in all of its biological forms and manifestations, precedes its utility and commercial value, and therefore must be respected and safeguarded by all political, commercial and social institutions,

That the Earth’s gene pool, in all of its biological forms and manifestations, exists in nature and, therefore, must not be claimed as intellectual property even if purified and synthesized in the laboratory,

That the global gene pool, in all of its biological forms and manifestations, is a shared legacy and, therefore, a collective responsibility, And,

Whereas, our increasing knowledge of biology confers a special obligation to serve as a steward on behalf of the preservation and well being of our species as well as all of our other fellow creatures,

Therefore, the nations of the world declare the Earth’s gene pool, in all of its biological forms and manifestations, to be a global commons, to be protected and nurtured by all peoples and further declare that genes and the products they code for, in their natural, purified or synthesized form as well as chromosomes, cells, tissue, organs and organisms, including cloned, transgenic and chimeric organisms, will not be allowed to be claimed as commercially negotiable genetic information or intellectual property by governments, commercial enterprises, other institutions or individuals.

The Parties to the treaty - to include signatory nation states and Indigenous Peoples - further agree to administer the gene pool as a trust. The signatories acknowledge the sovereign right and responsibility of every nation and homeland to oversee the biological resources within their borders and determine how they are managed and shared. However, because the gene pool, in all of its biological forms and manifestations, is a global commons, it cannot be sold by any institution or individual as genetic information. Nor can any institution or individual, in turn, lay claim to the genetic information as intellectual property.

What You Can Do: For more information, contact the Foundation on Economic Trends, 660 L St. NW, Suite 216, Washington, DC 20036, (202) 466-2823, Fax (202) 429-9602, www.foet.org

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