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Rights of Nature: an evolving movement

Dr. Dorine E. van Norren.

By Dr. Dorine E. van Norren, independent researcher and civil servant

Few had heard of Rights of Nature fifteen years ago, but recently this new legal paradigm is becoming increasingly popular. That is, mostly in the Global South. Though it started in a few municipalities in the US since 2006 (starting with Pennsylvania), it is mostly the indigenous peoples who have embraced the concept. First in the Western Hemisphere and later in other continents. The Ojibwe in Minnesota declared rights for their wild rice (and related freshwater resources), the Ponca Nation (Oklahoma) claimed rights of Nature for their territory (to halt fracking) (2017). And 200 U.S. and Canadian tribal nations recognized the grizzly bear’s right to exist in a healthy ecosystem (to counter President Trump’s attempt to take it off the endangered species list). The people of Toledo also declared lake Eerie to have rights (later overturned by a federal judge in 2020).

Frontrunners were also Bolivia and Ecuador who enshrined the indigenous concept of Vivir Bien/Buen Vivir in their constitutions in 2008. The Andean concept lived by the Quecha people of Sumak Kawsay was the basis and centers around living in harmony with Nature, that is to say biocentric living. This is in contrast to the Western anthropocentric way of living which puts the human at the centre of the universe, above nature and in control of it. This biocentric belief is shared by most indigenous people.

Bolivia organized the Alternative Climate Summit in 2010, issuing a Universal Declaration (and adopting a national law) for the rights of Mother Earth. Recently (2022), it also gave rights to Lake Titicaca. In 2012 the UN organization for Harmony with Nature was established. At the same time Ecuador adopted the first constitution with a rights of Nature clause (art 71-73) in 2008.  Since then Colombia recognized the rights of several rivers (2016). Chile proposed a draft constitution recognizing the rights of Nature (to be voted on in September 2022). The Llaka Honhat community in Argentina won a case in which the InterAmerican court also recognized rights of Nature. And Mexico proposes (biodiversity) policies based on ‘ armonia con la naturaleza). Though not formally recognizing rights of Nature, Costa Rica has put many environmental policies in practice that are in this spirit.

Ecuador, however, remains the only country to constitutionally recognize these rights. To mention a few court cases that ensued. In a recent landmark decision the constitutional court forbid mining in the area of Los Cedros Forest, and courts did so for a few other areas (Llurimagua territory in Imbanbura, the indigenous Sinangoe terrirory & Amazon rivers, Pinas de la Chuva hills). Other cases involved limits on agriculture (pig farming pollution, shrimp farming in a mangrove area, pine tree plantation in a paramo ecoystem) and genetically modified crops limiting ‘food sovereignty’. The first case ever won gave the river Vilcabamba rights over the claimed right to development (road construction) by a municipality. And the Galapagos islands benefitted by enhanced jurisdiction tackling illegal shark fishing. Rights of Nature also included protection of animals, most notably the domesticized monkey Estrellita. In the case of oil spills by Chevron in the Amazon, decided on earlier by conventional environmental law, but disputed by the oil company, defendants recently also successfully invoked rights of Nature.

In the meantime other countries in the world are catching up. Bhutan enshrined guardianship of Nature in its constitution of 2008 (including mandatory forest cover of 60%) that is entirely based on its (Buddhist) Gross National Happiness philosophy. In the front row also sat New Zealand in 2012 giving rights to Te Urewere National Park, mountain and a river in cooperation with indigenous peoples. Uganda adopted a rights of Nature law in 2019. In the same year, the court in Bangladesh recognized rights of rivers and the local court in India of the Yamuna and Ganges rivers (later overturned by the Supreme Court). In Europe the Spanish are writing history giving rights to the Mar Menor lake (2022). In the Netherlands rights are being petitioned for the Waddenzee and the river Maas. The design museum Nieuwe Instituut became a zoöp (zoöperation giving voice to all life).

With this new movement some initial steps have been taken in the fight against climate change and protection of the Earth.

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