What if nature had rights?

A protester holding a poster at a climate strike. (Credit: Ivan Radic)

As the overwhelming evidence of human activity’s impact on the planet stack up – pushing ecosystems towards the brink of collapse – a group of environmentalists are seeking to protect nature by having the UN recognise its rights. 

While still at very early stages, the idea has been gaining support in the last decade in environmental circles. For its proponents, the increasing attention that climate change and other environmental challenges have gained in multilateral spaces could propel their proposal to reality in the coming years.

They gathered virtually and in-person at the UN Geneva headquarters at Palais des Nations in December for the Geneva Forum, organised every year by the Geneva-based NGO, Objectif Sciences International (OSI).

How the declaration would work

Every person on the planet has a set of rights, such as the right to life, to not being tortured or discriminated against, or to think freely, and states have an obligation to safeguard those, in line with the UN’s 1948 universal declaration of human rights.

Proponents of the declaration would like to see a similar type of document adopted by the UN General Assembly that would recognise the rights of nature.

“It would be a compliment to the human rights declaration and an incentive to remember that we are part of Mother Earth. She is the source of our life and we cannot honour human rights and disregard the rights of Mother Earth without causing an imbalance in the ecosystem,” said Doris Ragettli, member of OSI and co-founder of Rights of Mother Earth, a movement spearheading efforts for the declaration.

For Geovana Cartaxo Freire, environmental law professor at the Federal University of Ceará in Brazil, who spoke at the conference, the document would have above all a symbolic meaning.

“It would mean overcoming the paradigm of sustainable development, which to me is a degraded concept. Before capitalism, we called it Mother Earth and now we talk about natural resources. Everything is a resource, everything is a good. And it's not a good. It is life,” she told Geneva Solutions.

But does granting rights to nature mean that Earth becomes a rights holder and can go to court? According to Nina Bries Silva, environmental lawyer for indigenous peoples in Brazil, there are still many questions pending. 

“Are we speaking about all natural elements or just some kind of elements? Is it the same kind of right that humans have? Who will represent this nature? There are many legal practical questions and some answers have been put forward,” she said, citing the case of the Atrato River in Colombia.

When recognising the rights of the river in 2017, the Colombian authorities named the indigenous group that lived on the river’s basin its legal guardian.

“It is different from giving property rights, which is considering nature as a resource that can be owned. Indigenous peoples were granted stewardship so that they would ensure that nature is preserved as a living being that cannot be obtained,” said Bries Silva.

A fairy tale?

While the rights of nature is still very much a civil society-led initiative and has yet to get the support at the international level, there is growing recognition of such rights through regional and national legislation. Among the most known cases are the Whanganui River in New Zealand, the world’s first waterway to become a legal person, or the recognition of the rights of Mother Earth by Bolivia.

Currently around 20 countries have enshrined the rights of nature in their legal framework and hundreds of laws have been passed at a regional or local level with some form of recognition.

Other efforts are taking place with similar aims such as getting ecocide recognised as by the International Criminal Court. In 2021, indigenous groups filed a case against the Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro for crimes against humanity for promoting the destruction of the Amazon forest and thus threatening their existance.

According to Bries, while these efforts are all moving towards a similar objective, they are still very much ingrained in the existing legal framework where humans are the main reference.

“We’re still trying to fit all of it within a human rights framework and that sometimes limits us because like the name suggests human rights are made for humans. The concept hasn’t been designed for nature,” Bries said.

Towards a UN declaration

Within  the UN, the idea has also made progress. In 2009, the UN General Assembly adopted for the first time a resolution acknowledging the concept of “Mother Earth” and that some countries recognise its rights.

Moreover, a proposed text already exists. In 2010, in Cochabamba, Bolivia, indigenous groups along with political leaders, adopted a declaration on rights of Mother Earth, granting all nature equal rights to humans and recognising their interdependency. The document was signed by around 34,000 people at the time, Ragettli noted. 

The country’s late president Evo Morales put the idea forward to the UN but it has yet to become a reality. 

In 2010, Ragettli helped launch a petition for the UN to adopt a declaration on the rights of nature. The petition was delivered to the former UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon in 2012 at the Earth Summit in Rio with some 117,000 signatures and at Cop21 in Paris with some 828,000.

“We wanted to give a tool to the people who couldn't go to Rio because of money or whatever other reason, so that everybody could be the voice for Mother Earth,” Ragettli said. 

The petition was relaunched in 2018 and has rallied around 277,000 supporters up until now. Its proponents are aiming for one million signatures, but regardless of the number achieved, they will present it to the current UN secretary general in 2023 on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the human rights declaration.

“We will ask the UN to commit to adopt the Declaration of Rights of Mother Nature and use the existing one as an inspirational document,” Ragettli said. “We think the time has come.”

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