More nations pledge laws to protect the environment

A new framework for defending the environment is emerging across the world allowing people to sue on behalf of the environment. More than 60 leaders signed a Pledge for Nature at the U.N. summit this week.

Luis Echeverria/Reuters
A man helps pick up washed-up trash on the banks of the Motagua river near the village of Quetzalito, Guatemala, Sept. 24, 2020. Increasingly, laws are being passed around the world giving rights to rivers and other ecosystems in a bid to prevent overdevelopment.

From Bolivia to New Zealand, rivers and ecosystems in at least 14 countries have won the legal right to exist and flourish, as a new way of safeguarding nature gains steam, U.S. environmental groups said on Thursday.

Rights of nature laws, allowing residents to sue over harm on behalf of lakes and reefs, have seen “a dramatic increase” in the last dozen years, said the groups the Earth Law Center, International Rivers, and the Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice.

“This is a new area of rights, but it’s also a growing movement,” Monti Aguirre, Latin America coordinator with International Rivers, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

World leaders held the United Nations’ first biodiversity summit on Wednesday to build support for a new agreement to protect 30% of the planet’s land and seas by 2030, set to be negotiated in China in May.

Separately, more than 60 leaders signed a Pledge for Nature on Monday committing to reverse global loss of biodiversity by 2030, including clamping down on marine pollution and deforestation.

Without action, 30% to 50% of all species could be lost by 2050, threatening economic and social prosperity, a report by the charity The Nature Conservancy said this month.

Lawmakers have been implementing rights of nature, which are rooted in indigenous thought, through laws, judicial decisions, constitutional amendments, and U.N. resolutions in countries including Ecuador, Bangladesh, Uganda, and Australia.

“We see these efforts not as isolated events, but part of something larger,” said Simon Davis-Cohen, a researcher with the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, a U.S. nonprofit which supports the global growth of rights of nature laws.

This new legal route to protect the planet – overriding the long-held human right to harm – can bring fresh arguments to court, rally communities, and shift local politics, he said.

Mr. Davis-Cohen said there still is not enough focus on the need to empower local authorities, saying strengthening local decision-making is “instrumental” to achieving stronger environmental law.

That question of local decisionmaking is playing out in Florida, which “has suffered greatly from the failure of our regulatory system to protect our waterways,” said Chuck O’Neal, president of the advocacy group Speak Up Wekiva, named after a local river.

Several Florida counties are seeking to recognize rights of nature, and residents of one of the largest, Orange County, will vote in a local referendum on the issue in November.

If passed, the law would recognize that all waterbodies in Orange County have a right to exist, flow, and maintain a healthy ecosystem, and enable residents to sue over these issues.

Yet the effort is already in court, after the state government in June barred local jurisdictions from recognizing rights of nature, prompting Mr. O’Neal and others to sue.

A decision is expected after the Nov 3. election, said Mr. O’Neal.

Neither the Florida Department of Environmental Protection nor the office of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis responded to requests for comment. 

This story was reported by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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