The Rights of Nature Movement Builds Momentum

| Educate!

Most of us who live in modern, industrialized societies have been conditioned to think of other living creatures as beings that exist solely for human uses. Non-human nature is here to serve us, or so we’ve been taught. We give little thought as to what this mindset might mean for the environment, or for the ability of future human generations to thrive.

Yet people are a part of nature, not separate, and we ignore this at our peril.

Last month, 60 activists from around the world gathered in Ecuador for a five-day conference designed to highlight the very fact that humans’ well-being depends on the health of the other beings around us. The gathering, hosted by the Global Alliance for Rights of Nature, was a space for advocates to strategize a holistic approach to protecting both people and the planet.

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.”

According to Pablo Solon, Bolivia’s former ambassador to the United Nations and now executive director of Focus on the Global South, we need to build a global movement based on a new relationship with Earth, and that includes a new economy that supports life. “If we don’t change the relationships of global forces, nothing will change,” Solon said.

This point was reiterated by many others, including Vandana Shiva, an Indian physicist and eco-feminist, who stated that “we often ignore the fact that the model is collapsing.” Tom Goldtooth, founder of the Indigenous Environmental Network, told conference goers that a social movement for systematic change is needed to support rights of nature, and ultimately, we must “break away from a system that doesn’t recognize us.”

The conference ended on a promising note as participants held a public tribunal on the Rights of Nature and Mother Earth.  A ten-member international panel of judges, headed by Shiva, heard nine rights of nature cases and ruled on each case’s admissibility for adjudication at a future tribunal.

Experts presented on the following: the BP Deep Horizon Gulf oil spill; Ecuador’s Yasuní-ITT oil project; the Chevon/Texaco oil contamination case in the Amazon; coal port expansion on Australia’s coast along the Great Barrier Reef; the Condor Mirador open-pit copper mine; hydraulic fracturing; genetically-modified organisms; climate change; and the recent persecution defenders of nature in Ecuador.

The tribunal will become a permanent global body for advancing and defending nature’s rights; the next one will likely be in Peru in early December 2014 during the United Nations climate summit.

Patricia Gualinga, representative of the Kichwa community of Sarayaku in the Ecuadorian Amazon, told the judges that Pachamama (Earth) is life itself, and if we destroy Pachamama, “we will destroy ourselves.”

It should be obvious — given the environmental degradation that what we humans have been doing for the last several centuries — that our dominant way of thinking about nature is counterproductive. Rights of nature represents the kind of profound shift in our thinking that must take place if we are to leave for future generations a sustainable planet with healthy communities.

Our world would do well to heed the words of Rachel Carson: “Man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself.”