Rights of Nature and the Natural World

Guest post by Zeeshan Khan and Michelle Thompson

Mother Earth has provided food, water, and protection for humans for more than 6 million years. Yet since the industrial revolution, consumption of natural resources has only increased. We now face a grim future: protect nature or suffer the consequences without it. Does nature have rights? Read on to find out more.

What are the Rights of Nature?

The “Rights of Nature” doctrine states that ecosystems can legally be considered people, which would allow them to defend themselves in courts. Under law, this would give ecosystems “legal personhood” – the right to survive, thrive, and to be represented in court by a guardian.

Recognizing the legal rights of nature is not a new idea. Many different Indigenous populations have recognized the rights of nature for centuries. Indigenous communities’ deep relationships with nature helped build social systems that didn’t center humans. They were able to protect their natural resources for centuries by prioritizing them within legal systems. To grow the rights of nature movement, environmentalists should listen to Indigenous leaders and laws.

Why is it important if nature has rights?

Under the Rights of Nature movement, ecosystems could be legally protected from environmental degradation such as development, pollution, or extractive practices. The goal is to make sure that corporations and economic interests don’t overshadow the value of nature. For example, Ecuador had the rights of nature included in its constitutional provisions. In 2011, the Principal Government of Loja found that constructing a road near a protected river violated the river’s rights. This was the first successful legal rights of nature case in western law.

Is nature a human right?

Humans depend heavily on healthy and sustainable environments. People have basic needs like clean water, food, and sanitation. Recently the connection between human rights and environmental protection has increased drastically. This connection has advanced the development of laws that attempt to support the environment. These laws look at the relationship between human activity and ecological destruction.

We see action taking place worldwide to protect nature and our basic human rights. Local governments, nonprofits, and Indigenous communities are stepping up and creating fundamental nature laws. These laws protect our basic human right to a clean and healthy environment.

How Indigenous communities have led in the fight for the rights of nature

Indigenous tribes have led the fight for the legal protection of vital ecosystems. When finding and designing long-term solutions within ecosystems, Indigenous people are essential. Indigenous traditions are some of the oldest known ways of tending to ecosystems. Indigenous leaders have been critical in protecting nature. They also participate in protecting wildlife and fighting fossil fuel companies.

How have Indigenous communities found legal rights

In September 2007, the United Nations certified the declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples. This was the first giant leap for Indigenous Peoples at the UN. This gave a new meaning to access and protection that Indigenous communities would have the ability to seek within legal justice.

This framework made a minimum standard of living for Indigenous communities worldwide. The declaration focuses on human rights standards, like education, food security, health care, and the collective rights of any Indigenous peoples.

Nature’s rights and the current climate change crisis

In the fight against climate change, nature’s rights have become even more popular. Climate change affects the basic rights of life like clean water and food. Climate change has helped push the legal theory of nature’s rights.

For example, the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People has committed to protecting 30% of nature’s land and sea by 2030. The Paris Climate Agreement, which 196 countries worldwide have adopted, has created a deadline for countries to set long-term strategies to reduce and cut greenhouse gas emissions by 1.5 degrees Celsius. These all set out to reduce our carbon and ecological footprint worldwide.

How the next generation is demanding their own rights

Many youth have come forward to fight for the rights of nature, environmental law, and nature laws. One outspoken advocate for climate change and the rights of nature is Greta Thunberg. She’s inspired many young people to speak up about their human right to live in a healthy environment.

In the Western United States, Connor Berryhill is one of these young climate leaders. Berryhill has organized his own environmental movement to clean and restore environments in his hometown. The movement encourages youth to participate in representative democracy. Through voting, the rights of the next generation will then be heard.

Another young activist fighting for environmental justice is Autumn Peltier. Peltier advocates for water rights for Indigenous populations in Canada. She describes water as “one of the most sacred elements” and “something we honor”. While she doesn’t explicitly call for the rights of nature, her message is very much in line with the movement. She fights to protect waterways and believes that bodies of water have value beyond how we can use them.

Climate litigation is creating nature laws

Climate litigation is one of the most common practices of climate law. Climate litigation can come through forums like local, private, and human rights laws. Climate change litigation is currently reshaping legal systems worldwide and is creating new human and nature rights laws.

Current climate litigation is driving a delaying effect on anti-environmental actions. Over the past ten years, there’s been a spike in lawsuits related to the environment. These suits look at climate change impacts on biodiversity and how climate change continues to affect the legal standing of biodiversity. Some past and future failed bills within the legal system might now have a chance to move through.

How human beings around the world are saving our natural land

Every day people are fighting for the fundamental legal rights of nature. The coalition I Heart Pisgah is currently one example of the local community protecting nature by saving and creating a healthy environment for the next generation.

Another big player in creating nature law is the Earth Law Center (ELC). ELC believes that nature should have the right to environmental protection, just as humans do. ELC, a nonprofit, is fighting for the recognition of the rights of nature through municipal and local laws.

The Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature (GARN) is a network of scientists, Indigenous leaders, and everyday people. People of all ages are changing human relationships with our mother earth. GARN believes that humans must reorient their relationship with natural environments. One way is by making sure rights of nature are established for the longevity of nature’s ecosystems.

It’s our turn now

Human beings have never been in a more dangerous environmental crisis than now. It’s up to every one of us to fight for the rights of nature. This is our best bet to create laws that ensure the exploitation of nature does not happen. Until the rights of nature exist in western law, we must work together to save our natural communities and guarantee a better future for the next generation.

Are you ready to take action? Act now to tell President Biden to make our forests a priority.

zeeshan kahnZeeshan Khan

A mountain climbing enthusiast, Zee is a Communication Studies Senior at Appalachian State University and Dogwood’s Spring 2022 intern. He is passionate about creating understanding and awareness about climate justice. On his weekends, he enjoys trail running, cooking, and caring for his fifteen house plants.

michelle thompson 2022 internMichelle Thompson

Michelle is Dogwood’s 2022 Forests & Climate Stanback Research Fellow. She has been interested in nature and conservation since growing up in upstate South Carolina. She is a masters student at Duke studying ecosystem science and conservation. Michelle is honored to continue her work in environmentalism at Dogwood over the summer and is excited by the opportunity to work with her community. In her free time, Michelle enjoys crafting, reading, and hanging out with her two cats.

One Response to “Rights of Nature and the Natural World”

  1. Elizabeth Davis

    I am very interested in what is going on to give Earth rights – especially interested in the work of native tribes.


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