Talking about a revolution for nature’s rights

From Pacha Mama to ancestral rivers, areas of the earth are earning legal rights

From New Zealand to the U.S., an increasing number of countries are enshrining nature's rights in local and national legislature. Jeffrey van Lent, CIFOR
22 April 2019
Sandra Cordon

From New Zealand, where a major river has been given legal status, to Ecuador, where nature’s rights are enshrined in the constitution, to India and the U.S., the global movement to recognize Mother Nature’s rights is picking up speed – and raising challenging issues, says a new academic paper.

A rights revolution for nature” suggests that as the rights-of-nature movement scores some significant successes, it could help to address the worsening global environmental crisis, which current enviro-protection laws alone have not been able to reverse. The paper’s conclusions, published online in the journal Science, come as the world marks Earth Day on 22 April.

But for real change to occur, a profound shift in human attitudes is essential – a shift away from seeing nature merely as something that exists for people to exploit, says Guillaume Chapron, one of three authors of the paper and associate professor of ecology at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences.

“Nature has the right to exist; nature is not just here to serve people,” explains Chapron. “I don’t believe we can solve our environmental problems by keeping the same mindset that caused the problem.”

Acknowledging nature’s fundamental rights of existence can offer greater environmental protection than “existing laws [that] regulate, rather than stop, the destruction of the natural world,” states the paper. That’s because nature’s basic rights – unlike many environmental protection laws – cannot be taken away, adds Chapron.  

A bend in the Whanganui River on New Zealand’s North Island. Tim Proffitt-White, Flickr

However, to successfully apply rights-of-nature laws, questions must first be answered, including how a rights holder is defined and what legal rights it will have, says the paper. The question of who could represent nature in, for example, a court hearing is more easily answered, says Chapron: a guardian could be appointed to act on nature’s behalf as happens in cases of underage or incapacitated humans.

Advocates for rights of nature call environmental devastation “a moral wrong,” which hurts non-human entities (such as nature) and humans both. “When people and corporations have rights and nature does not, nature frequently loses, as evidenced by the continuing deterioration of the environment,” concludes the paper. “[Recognizing] rights of nature may help to prevent this one-sided outcome.”

Results so far have been mixed from countries and communities where rights-of-nature laws are being tried.

New Zealand offers one successful example. There, the national government recognizes the Whanganui River and surrounding area as the legal person Te Awa Tupua, following a treaty settlement with the Whanganui Maori tribe. It calls the river – which is New Zealand’s third-largest – an ancestor, and in 2017, the law recognized Te Awa Tupua as an “indivisible and living whole, comprising the Whanganui River from the mountains to the sea.”

Less successful, however, have been cases in Bolivia, the U.S., and Ecuador. In 2008, the latter became the first country to enshrine rights of nature in its constitution, recognizing the rights of Pacha Mama, an indigenous earth goddess, and stating that nature has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles.

The Andes Mountains in Ecuador. Tomas Munita, CIFOR

Unfortunately, the paper notes, neither Ecuador nor Bolivia – another pioneer in recognizing rights of nature – has actually been able to slow environmental degradation. “Though a few court decisions rested on the rights of nature and resulted in positive outcomes for the environment, both countries have continued to implement environmentally damaging policies.”

Meanwhile, an ordinance in Pennsylvania’s Grant Township in the U.S. – one of a number of such laws in small communities across that country – recognized the rights of natural communities and ecosystems to exist, flourish and naturally evolve. However, the ordinance was pre-empted by state law and found to infringe corporate rights, notes the paper, which was co-authored by Yaffa Epstein, a researcher in the faculty of law at Sweden’s Uppsala University, and José Vicente López-Bao, a biodiversity researcher at Spain’s Oviedo University.

Some proponents have suggested that rights of nature represents a new form of sustainable development, one that is based on the foundational indigenous concept of humans living in harmony with nature. In fact, rights-of-nature thinking frequently blends Western rights concepts with non-Western spirituality, notes the paper. 

Elsewhere, some academics have argued that the present rights-of-nature laws could represent a different path to sustainable development and are fundamentally sound, but must be strengthened.

Although the concept of rights of nature is gaining attention, many say it actually dates from 1972, when the Southern California Law Review published a significant article by law professor Christopher Stone, titled “Should trees have standing – toward legal rights for natural objects.” It argued for the rights of nature.


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