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What if nature had rights?

A new report published earlier this week reveals the worrying collapse of biodiversity around the world. To protect nature, some countries have started giving rights to natural entities.

According to a survey carried out by pollsters Ipsos MORI, 82% of Europeans will prioritise the protection of the environment, animals and nature when voting for the upcoming European parliament elections. Despite this interest in the environment amongst voters, a recent report reveals that governments are not doing enough to halt nature loss, with up to one million species set to disappear within a few decades.

To protect the environment, some countries decided to give nature rights. This phenomenon could be considered isolated but lately it has been getting more usual.

Some examples from around the world:

  • 2008: Ecuador includes nature in its constitution
  • 2010: Bolivia‘s Legislative Assembly recognises Mother Earth’s rights
  • 2014: New Zealand‘s Te Uruwera forest gets legal personhood
  • 2017: New Zealand‘s government gives the Wharganui river and Mount Taranaki legal personhood
  • 2017: Colombia‘s Constitutional Court gives rights to protection, conservation, maintenance and restoration to the Atrato River
What does that mean for environment defenders?

In a previous Meta article, campaigners explained that ‘standing’ is the ability for environmental groups or citizens to challenge decisions in courts. This right is not always granted because, in some situations, NGOs or citizens need to prove they are personally affected or represent people directly affected by the issue.

Giving rights to nature is one way to overcome this challenge, enabling NGOs or concerned individuals to defend the environment’s rights more easilyRights of nature bypasses the issue of standing,” Tamlyn Jayatilaka, a researcher at the University of Ghent, wrote in a paper. “Rights of nature represents a paradigm shift
from the Western legal culture of consumerism, capitalism and predation of natural resources,
to include philosophies from indigenous groups more respectful to nature.”

Issues remain in countries that have adopted such provisions in their laws. For example, the Environmental Justice Atlas, a map listing environmental cases around the world, reveals that Ecuador, despite its pioneering legislation, still has numerous environmental cases pending. Nevertheless, incorporating nature into the law of the land will enable activist to increasingly use the law to protect the land.