Nature is alive, she has rights

by Natalia Greene for Global Alliance for Rights of Nature

Nature is alive, and she has the right to exist. This seems obvious; even a child wouldn’t question this assessment. Why then isn’t Nature rec-ognised as a subject of rights in local, national and global jurisprudence? The answer is that people are afraid that if Nature has rights, it will challenge corporate power and thereby the economy. However, it’s important to remember that the Latin root for ‘economy’ is eco, oikos, home, for our home. Our planet is at risk, and so are all her inhabitants. To regain the harmoni-ous balance, we need systemic change and recognising the rights of Nature is that ground-breaking paradigm shift.

The world is facing a global pandemic due to COVID-19—a virus that does not recognise borders. While there are different theories about how it may have emerged, the most accepted hy-pothesis is that COVID-19 has zoonotic origins. It is not a coincidence that COVID-19 broke out in zones characterised by the extractivist model—deforestation, population growth, and intensive pressure on Nature.

Though this pandemic has brought loss, suffering, and isolation, it has also given us time to im-agine a future different from the “normal” that caused the problem. Unfortunately, some gov-ernments, especially those from developing countries, are turning towards exploiting Nature for their country’s economic recovery. They are looking to extract minerals, oil, gas and other re-sources to sell—continuing to pursue a failing model. This means that we haven’t learnt our lesson; we aren’t listening to Nature, even though her voice is clear.

Our current legal systems allow humans to destroy ecosystems in the name of material ‘development’ while only granting rights to humans and human-centric constructs such as corporations and nation-states.

Still bigger than the pandemic are the multiple and compounding ecological crises that our planet is facing: Climate change, biodiversity loss, water pollution etc. These ecological crises are forcing people to rethink the legal, economic and governance structures underpinning industrial societies. At this moment of climate crisis, it seems that Nature is talking through us, and that is why the Rights of Nature movement is growing exponentially. This movement is growing all around the world and is manifesting itself as the context allows: Through the recognition of rights of Nature in national constitutions and national or local laws, in city constitutions and local ordinances, through the recognition of the rights of ecosystems, rivers, mountains and national parks, and through legal cases. It is happening everywhere at such pace that is hard to keep track, but organisations and networks such as the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature aim to support this movement, educate, and bring together organisations working with Nature Rights in order to expand these efforts to change the system.

There are numerous examples of these growing changes. Ecuador recognised Rights of Nature in its constitution in 2010 and there have been more than 40 legal cases in Ecuador to defend those rights. Bolivia passed the Law of the Rights of Mother Earth in 2010. There have been dozens of local ordinances in the USA that have been able to stop fracking. In Columbia, the rights of Atrato river as well as the Amazon have been recognised. In New Zealand, the Whanganui river has been recognised as a person and the Te Urewera National Park (land of the Maori) has been recognised as a legal entity. The Lake Erie bills of rights has been passed, four cities in México have incorporated Rights of Nature in their city constitutions, a High Court in Bangladesh has given rivers rights, and the Ponca Nation and the Sami have recognised these rights within their nations. There are projects to give rights to the Loire and Seine river and the Appel du Rhone in France, and the UN has created an eco-centric platform called the UN Harmony with Nature Dialogues. Therefore, efforts to protect the planet and her people are on the rise—demonstrating that the time has come for Rights of Nature.

I like to think that we are going through a transformation similar to that of the imaginal cells of a caterpillar. The new cells of a caterpillar, called imaginal cells, resonate at a different frequency, and although the immune system tries to fight them, it cannot destroy them quickly enough. So, the lonely imaginal cells start to clump together into little clusters. While these cells resonate together and pass information among one to another, at one point they create a long string that transforms into a butterfly. From this over-consuming caterpillar—quite similar to our capitalist consumerist society—emerges a cluster of imaginal cells that brings forth this miraculous and beautiful transformation which eventually becomes a butterfly. Hence, if enough of us, with our initiatives from all over the world, cluster together to protect and promote Nature Rights, we can change this over-consuming and failing capitalist system. Our current legal systems allow humans to destroy ecosystems in the name of material ‘development’ while only granting rights to humans and human-centric constructs such as corporations and nation-states. This needs an urgent change.

All of these rights-based approaches and legal personhood for nature laws aim to shift the legal status of the natural world from being our property to living entities with their own rights to exist, thrive, evolve, and maintain their natural cycles. Rights of Nature is grounded in the recognition that humanity is just one member of the wider biological community, and that we have evolved with, and are dependent upon, a healthy, interconnected web of life on Earth. Rights of Nature laws create guidance for actions that respect this relationship. As history has shown us, especially with the development and recognition of rights, cultural change can be brought with change in law. This is what we need—a society that is conscious that we are part of Nature, and if we hurt Nature, we hurt ourselves. We are completely inter-dependent on the natural world for our existence.

Nature deserves to be valued for its own inherent worth. Legally recognising the rights of Nature is not about ‘conferring rights’ on Nature, because Nature by virtue of its existence has rights. It is rather giving legal recognition to what is already there. Recognising that the natural world is just as entitled to exist and evolve as we are necessarily changes the way humans act. We can refer to Earth-centered cultures around the world for guidance as to how humans treat the natural world when they see themselves being part of it—rather than the masters of it. Many indigenous cultures see plants and animals as relatives—members of an inter-connected community of life that is self-sustaining and deserves respect. They draw from the natural world to live, but do not take more than the natural system can sustain. This was key to Rights of Nature being recognised in the Ecuadorian constitution, and it allowed the country to have a social contract that was much more democratic since it was rescuing a valued part of indigenous cosmology and translating it to the western politico-legal instrument that is a country’s constitution. However, Rights of Nature shouldn’t only be incorporated into law in countries with a large indigenous population, but everywhere in the world since the time for Nature has come. The future is now.