01/11/2012 08:34 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Future of Our Planet Depends on Latinos

By Refugio Mata

Last December, we got some good news from the Obama administration. Thanks in large part to the Latino community coming together to fight for the protection of our health, the Environmental Protection Agency announced historic new regulations to protect our communities against mercury and other air toxics. This proves that when Latinos get involved, we can create change. While these new EPA rules represent progress, we need to keep the momentum going in order to reverse the alarming pollution levels that affect our communities.

Congress has not passed any other far-reaching environmental overhaul of our laws since the 1990 version of the Clean Air Act was approved. Meanwhile, our environment is crying out for help. While Congress is stuck in political gridlock, we need to focus on initiatives that could bypass Congress but still be transformative for the environment. The granting of rights to nature just as if it were an actual person has been capturing the imagination of environmentalists across the globe. The Environmental Bill of Rights could be the solution, especially if it's carried out on a city-by-city basis like Los Angeles is considering.

A declaration of our rights to a healthy environment would be a great tool to promote larger protections for our communities. Similar declarations have already been adopted in Bolivia and Ecuador. In parts of the U.S. these types of laws have either been adopted or are being considered, like in the cases of Pittsburg in Pennsylvania and of Santa Monica in California. In a nutshell, through these laws the rights of nature would be elevated above the rights of corporate interests. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that non-human entities like big powerful corporations have the same rights as human beings. If that's the case, why can't nature have the same rights under our legal system?

Latinos need to be at the forefront of this push to treat nature as people. As a community, we tend to be far more supportive of environmental initiatives compared to other demographics. A poll sponsored in 2010 by NRDC revealed that 81% of Latinos believe that global warming is a big problem and 70% support government regulations to curb carbon emissions, compared to only 50% among whites. The political influence of Latinos grows exponentially with every election cycle. This was certainly the case during the midterm elections of 2010. There is no question that any serious attempt to succeed at making progress on environmental initiatives will require new innovative ways to break through our current political gridlock. In light of the environmental movement being primarily white, part of such a strategy needs to include more aggressive investments in engaging Latinos, particularly through Spanish-language media.

Together, we can make 2012 a  transformative year for everyone. Latinos need to be more involved in order for this to be possible. The future of our planet depends on it.

Refugio Mata is a Public Relations specialist and founder of Project Economic Refugee. He graduated from CSU Northridge and has been an organizer for immigrant rights, economic and environmental justice issues ever since.