Where nature has rights

Juan Karita/AP/File
People burn offerings in honor of the 'Pachamama,' or Mother Earth, on El Cumbre mountain, considered sacred, on the outskirts of La Paz, Bolivia, Aug. 2012. During the month of August, people gather on sacred mountains to make offerings and ask for wealth to Mother Earth. According to local agrarian tradition, Mother Earth awakes hungry and thirsty in August and needs offerings of food and drink in order for her to be fertile and yield abundant crops.

The notion that nature has certain inviolable rights is growing, especially internationally, as a paper published March 14 in Science makes clear. In some instances, those rights are specifically rooted in indigenous spirituality. In others, they’re grounded in nature’s “interests,” whether they be providing habitat or other ecological roles. 

While the number of laws is growing, attempts to use the legal system to defend nature’s rights haven’t yielded many concrete results.

“Ecuador and Bolivia played a pioneering role in recognizing the rights of nature, yet neither has been able to slow their environmental degradation,” the authors of the Science paper write. “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.”

Why We Wrote This

A growing movement to grant rights to nature is starting to find toeholds around the world. For some, the concept is rooted in indigenous spirituality, for others it is about stewardship.

But as the movement grows, and various legal systems begin to sort out just how this concept plays out in practice, many proponents are pushing for practical ways to implement these laws and resolve how nature’s rights stack up against other competing rights.

In addition to the recent law passed in Toledo, Ohio, recognizing the rights of Lake Erie, here are a few examples of rights of nature around the globe:

Ecuador: When the country rewrote its constitution in 2008, it chose to enshrine the rights of nature – or “Pachamama,” an indigenous Earth goddess – in the document. The constitution doesn’t treat nature as property, but rather recognizes that it has the right “to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution.” Some cases are beginning to be argued based on that provision, and in some cases, nature has prevailed.

Colombia: In a landmark verdict in 2016, Columbia’s Constitutional Court ruled that the Atrato River had legal personhood and the right to “protection, conservation, maintenance and restoration.” In 2018, the country’s Supreme Court ruled that the Colombian Amazon also had rights and ordered the government to take action to combat deforestation.

New Zealand: Years of negotiation between the government and a Maori tribe resulted in a 2017 law granting personhood to Te Awa Tupua – “an indivisible and living whole, comprising the Whanganui River from the mountains to the sea, and all its physical and metaphysical elements” – with both the rights and duties of a legal person.

India: In 2018, the High Court of Uttarakhand, in a ruling on cruelty to horses, declared that “every species has an inherent right to live and are required to be protected by law.” In earlier decisions, the same court recognized the rights of certain ecosystems, including the Ganges and Yamuna Rivers.

Bolivia: In 2010, the country enacted the Law of the Rights of Mother Earth, declaring both Mother Earth and life systems (human communities as well as ecosystems) to hold certain rights. Another law enacted two years later laid out these rights even more explicitly.

Click here for a more detailed exploration the the logistical challenges of incorporating “rights of nature” into U.S. law.

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