The Growing Movement to Grant Legal Rights for Nature

Traditionally, environmental laws have been written to manage how we use nature. However, the rapid degradation of nature driven by human activity is forcing indigenous leaders and activists to push for nature having rights that are enshrined in law. 

We saw an example of this last year when Ohio activists pushed for Lake Erie to have a bill of rights, only for their efforts to be roadblocked by the Chamber of Commerce. Yet this approach is gaining momentum and you shouldn’t be surprised to see it proposed throughout the United States and expanded in the rest of the world.

Why Aren’t Regulations Enough: In These Times put it perfectly,

“For many indigenous advocates of rights of nature, ecosystems are both sacred in their own right and inseparable from human societies. “I am the river and the river is me,” a Māori saying goes—an injury to the river is an injury to all. Rights of nature enshrine this principle as law. This ethical viewpoint isn’t so different from that of some radical environmentalists, who argue ecosystems and other organisms—be it due to their interconnectedness with sentient animals (including humans), their perceived consciousness or simply the fact they exist and are alive—have a moral claim to their lives and livelihoods. But for the hard-nosed human supremacists out there, there’s a selfish argument, too: The legal framework of rights offers more protection than typical regulations, and if we don’t protect these ecosystems, plenty of humans will suffer.”

How This Works: As Ensia explained, Rights of Nature is a growing international movement that recognizes species and ecosystems not simply as resources for humans to use, but as living entities with rights of their own.

  • With Rights of Nature, communities work together outside of the regulatory system to establish legal rights.
  • Additionally, Rights of Nature laws are enforced differently than other environmental protections. When a community bill of rights is adopted into law, it designates a guardian to enforce the rights of an ecosystem by filing lawsuits on behalf of the ecosystem. 
  • In many instances, these custodians are indigenous tribes as the Rights of Nature is largely based on indigenous approaches to land management. 

Where It’s Already Happening: As Deutsche Welle reported it was in this spirit that Ecuador became the first country to enshrine the rights of nature — personified as Pachamama, the Andean earth goddess — in its constitution, in 2008. Bolivia and Uganda have since enshrined the rights of nature in their constitutions, and an amendment was recently proposed for Sweden to do the same. Additionally, the Ganges and Yamuna rivers now have legal personhood, as do each of Bangladesh’s hundreds of rivers.

In the United States, similar protections have been proposed for the Ohio River, Tamaqah Borough, PA, and the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, a Native American nation in Minnesota, codified the rights of manoomin, or wild rice, to “flourish, regenerate, and evolve.”

Why This Matters: Giving ecosystems, bodies of water, and natural places legal rights is shaping up to be the next frontier in conservation. Conservative critics have scoffed at the idea of giving rights to nature, yet in the United States corporations and even ships have rights in the legal system–so why not nature (ya know, the thing that sustains all life on Earth)?

If we’re going to protect 30% of the planet for nature by 2030 then we’re going to have to get creative, granting personhood isn’t that radical–or novel–of an idea.

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