The idea that the Ganges River in India or the Amazon Basin in Brazil should have "legal personhood" – and thus be able to defend its interests in court – was considered zany only ten or fifteen years ago, at least in Europe and North America. Now this once-fringe legal concept is going mainstream. Legislatures or courts in twelve countries have recognized the "rights of nature" at the state, local, and/or national levels in a dozen nations. In the United States alone, some three dozen communities –from Pittsburgh and Toledo to Orange County, Florida (population 1.5 million people) – have enacted such laws, often with overwhelming public support.
Rights of Nature
The Ecuadorian constitution, since 2008, has stated: ”Nature or Pachamama, where life is reproduced and exists, has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution.” This bold statement galvanized the rights to nature movement across the globe. Its growing reach, along with a precedent-setting court decision earlier this winter, illustrate the power of invoking legalized rights in protecting endangered ecosystems. The importance of rights of nature is deeply rooted in Indigenous understandings of the interconnectedness of all life. In this century, the legal movement for protection has looped from the Navajo Nation through a small town in Pennsylvania, to Ecuador then across the world, returning to native communities of North America, and back to Ecuador.
Here's a fanciful but almost-real scenario: the bees, squirrels, geese, bugs, trees, and other species of your local park have decided that they've had enough of human aggression and abuse. They're not going to take it anymore, and rise up and demand equal rights with humans. Through a series of interspecies assemblies, a treaty is negotiated to ensure that every living being in the local ecosystem can flourish. This scenario is a "live action role-playing" (LARP) game devised by Furtherfield, a London-based arts collective as part of its stewardship of part of the Victorian-era Finsbury Park. Over the next three years, Furtherfield is inviting humans to don masks and play the roles of each of seven species in negotiating "The Treaty of Finsbury Park 2025" -- the name of the project.
Salmon—the fish—are suing the City of Seattle in Sauk-Suiattle tribal court, seeking recognition of their legal rights to exist, flourish and regenerate. The Sauk-Suiattle Indian Tribe filed the complaint earlier this month on behalf of the fish following the city’s construction and operation of off-reservation hydroelectric dams on the Skagit River. The tribe, also asserting claims based on rights the tribe holds, alleges that the city constructed the dams, beginning in the first half of the 20th century, without the tribe’s consultation or consent. The case is the latest in a series of rights of nature lawsuits emerging in U.S. communities and throughout the world. Rights of Nature laws have also been passed in some places.
Later this year, the United Nations will finish hosting the final negotiations on a new conservation treaty for the high seas, as waters that lie outside national jurisdiction are known. These cover more than half of Earth’s surface and contain much of the planet’s biodiversity. The moment marks a tremendous opportunity in humanity's losing battle against biodiversity loss. Thus far, however, conversations about how best to protect the high seas have missed a crucial element, one that could well be the single boldest, most important conservation move that humankind could make: recognizing the property interests of the marine species now living there. Every whale and shark and sea turtle, every tuna and toothfish, every octopus and even every salp and sea urchin and anemone, has a right to own their part of the ocean.
In a first for Canadians, a river in Côte-Nord, Que., has been granted legal personhood by the local municipality of Minganie and the Innu Council of Ekuanitshit. The Magpie River, (Muteshekau-shipu in the Innu Coet) is an internationally renowned whitewater rafting site, winding nearly 300 kilometres before emptying into the St. Lawrence. The river has one hydroelectric dam managed by Hydro-Québec, and environmental groups have long sought a permanent solution to protect the river from further disruption. It is unclear how this will affect attempts to build developments on the river, including dams, moving forward, as legal personhood for nature doesn't exist in Canadian law and could be challenged in court.
In a clear signal of how the fossil fuel industry feels about efforts to enact Rights of Nature protections that safeguard communities and the environment from the impacts of coal, gas, and oil development, an energy company has—yet again—filed a federal lawsuit challenging a local law in Grant Township, Pennsylvania. This is the second time that Pennsylvania General Energy Company (PGE) has sued over the 2015 law, which aims to keep fracking waste injection wells out of the community of about 700 people. Though the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) also previously sued the township, earlier this year—in what Rolling Stone described as a "stunning reversal"—the department cited the law when rescinding PGE a waste injection permit.
In case you hadn’t noticed, the exploding coronavirus pandemic (we’re #1!) has taken a tad of our attention lately and the definition of “the future” has largely become: When will this be over? Not surprisingly, then, much real news about our future planet has largely gone missing in action. Take, for example, a story that's received next to no attention in this country, a report on the massive bleaching of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef this year thanks to record warming waters. Think of it as Australia’s oceanic equivalent of the staggering wildfires that burned through parts of that country in such an unprecedented fashion earlier in 2020. And coral reefs around the world, crucial to the life systems that rely on them (and that we humans rely on), are suffering similarly on a planet being transformed by human activity in ways large and small.
By Kiana Herold for IC - Indigenous battles to defend nature have taken to the streets, leading to powerful mobilizations like the gathering at Standing Rock. They have also taken to the courts, through the development of innovative legal ways of protecting nature. In Ecuador, Bolivia and New Zealand, indigenous activism has helped spur the creation of a novel legal phenomenon—the idea that nature itself can have rights. The 2008 constitution of Ecuador was the first national constitution to establish rights of nature. In this legal paradigm shift, nature changed from being held as property to a rights-bearing entity. Rights are typically given to actors who can claim them—humans—but they have expanded especially in recent years to non-human entities such as corporations, animals and the natural environment.
By Ben Forstenzer for U.S. Uncut - A first-in-the-nation ballot initiative to stop Nestle from buying public water may soon be up for a vote in Oregon’s Hood River County. The ballot initiative aims to block a convoluted water deal handing over water rights to both the state of Oregon and Hood River County to Nestle, resulting in the company selling the county’s water. The ballot initiative could stop the deal in its tracks and sound a warning to Nestle and other water-bottling companies like Coca-Cola and Pepsi that local populations are rallying to protect their water rights.
The rights of nature idea acknowledges that nature, in all its life forms, has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles. The concept recognizes that other beings — plants, animals, fungi, entire ecosystems — have inalienable rights, just like people. These other life formsdon’t just have instrumental value to humans as things to be used. They also have intrinsic value; they have worth in-and-of themselves. In 2008, Ecuador became the first country to recognize rights of nature in its national constitution, which made it an obvious location for the January gathering.“ We are making Earth unlivable for both humans and nature” said Alberto Acosta, an economist and president of Ecuador’s Constituent Assembly that wrote the country’s constitution that included rights of nature. He went on to say that the world “needs to take steps on the decommodification of nature.”
People of the Pacific Rim, their communities and the ecosystems, on which all life depends, are at the mercy of big energy and agriculture corporations, which are among the thousands of global corporations advising the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) process. The Investor-to-State Rules of the TPP will allow foreign corporations to by-pass a country’s domestic court system and go directly to a secret international tribunal to challenge our environmental laws as a “regulatory taking” that lowers “expected future profits.” Each country has hundreds or thousands of foreign corporations doing business in its territory that can challenge their domestic environmental laws.
Evo Morales’s very name seems to suggest his destiny of leading Bolivia in a valiant attempt at ‘moral evolution’ with all other Nation States in tow. Tasked with the difficult role of representing his Indigenous roots at the national and international levels of government and policy, Morales continues to make great strides that by all appearances bridge the dichotomy of tradition and modernity. Recent evolutions in Bolivian national policy regarding the protection and preservation of indigenous cultures continue to gain legal traction. Simultaneously, more Bolivians than ever before are poised to claim their rightful place in the interconnected web that is the information age.
With THE DR. LUCINDA HART-GONZÁLEZ CONSERVATION EASEMENT, Cleghorn sees himself as living the change the world needs and setting an example of working in partnership with Nature. That could change the world, he hopes, as the Rights of Nature are asserted, fully recognized, and protected under the law. He hopes that this easement will inspire other individuals to also take a stand for Nature and the future of the planet. “This easement is not only about about preserving land for organic agriculture; it also speaks to a paradigm shift that is needed in our thinking so that we recognize that we are part of nature, not lords over it. Our long history is catching up with us. We’re either going to turn around our thinking and behavior, or we are going to leave a wasteland for future generations,” said Cleghorn. Cleghorn accepts that the easement could devalue his property because it restricts the use of the land, but he believes that defending Nature’s rights is more important. Since it is attached to the deed, even when the deed changes hands, the new owners will have to comply with its terms.
When J. Stephen Cleghorn realized that Paradise Gardens and Farm, his certified-organic farm in Pennsylvania that sits above the Marcellus Shale formation, was at risk of being “fracked” for shale gas extraction, he knew he had to act. But he did more than just act against fracking when he became the first private property owner in the United States to use a deed easement recognizing the Rights of Nature to ban all activities that would do systemic harm to the ecosystem both above and deep below the surface of his farm. “We wanted to preserve organic agriculture on these 50 acres to be sure, but also wanted to employ this recognition of Rights of Nature to deter any activity that would threaten those rights at the surface in the deep biosphere below this farm,” said Cleghorn. Mineral “rights” enable fracking corporations to drill on and under your property.