Have you heard of the “Rights of Nature”?

You think you own whatever land you land on

The Earth is just a dead thing you can claim

But I know every rock and tree and creature

Has a life, has a spirit, has a name

Disney Movie, Poccahontas OST (1995), “Colors of the Wind”  

The main value of the modern society under capitalism was economic growth. As science and the means of communication and transportation developed, mankind began to explore and conquer the unknown world. As the Industrial Revolution took place, human consumption and production increased unprecedentedly. People have been producing and distributing more goods for a higher income, and for this, they have exploited nature.

While doing that, people perceived that humans are superior to other beings, and that nature is merely an instrument to satisfy their needs and for their survival and well-being. We call this “instrumental view of nature.” Actually, we buy and sell almost everything from nature, regarding it as our private property. We trade animals, plants, land, water, and even air.

Although numerous scientists and experts have been warning about environmental destruction, we often neglected them in excuse of economic growth over the past decades. Only when nature was seriously destroyed and began to make a huge economic loss and brought about disasters, did we look back on what we did to nature in the past.

If you look up the statistics on the environment, you can easily find the data on the economic loss caused by natural disasters or the economic benefits from nature converted into monetary values. Of course, it is good that these data help us know nature’s value intuitively, but this is from the viewpoint of calculating and judging nature, centering on human. Until now, nature has been regarded as an instrument and a means of human activities, but now people begin to have a new point of view about nature. It is the “Rights of Nature.”

Nature, Too, Has Rights

If you hear that people are being bought and sold somewhere, what do you think about it? Probably, you will regard it as a terrible human rights violation and raise your voice against it. However, not quite long ago, people actually traded humans, regarding them as private property. It is only lately that people started thinking that human beings should be respected because they are human. Now it is generally admitted that human rights should be guaranteed, and the systems that protect human rights are legislated, so if human rights are violated, legal penalties can be imposed.

Up to modern times, people thought that only human beings had reason and emotion, and that nature which has no reason and emotion were merely a means for human beings. However, as they researched on the ecosystems of animals and plants, they came to realize that living things other than humans, too, have intelligence needed to survive, communicating each other through their own languages. In addition, there is a growing perception that mankind is not a superior being, but part of nature. Accordingly, a system that guarantees the rights of nature has appeared. This legally acknowledges the inherent rights of nature, and guarantees the rights of ecosystems and species to exist, prosper, and regenerate just as the rights of humans and companies are guaranteed. This system guarantees the rights of nature itself, not for the benefit of man.

There are two reasons that support the rights of nature. The first is that if human rights should be granted naturally because they are humans (natural rights), the rights of nature, too, must be guaranteed naturally. The second is that the prosperity of ecosystem gives positive effect on improving the survival and well-being of humans.

Countries Recognize the Rights of Nature Today

In 1948, the UN officially recognized a wide range of inalienable human rights. This was an epoch-making event in history, transcending culture, religion, law, and political ideology.

Decades after that, humans began to talk about nature’s influence on their society, and started to insist on the legal rights of nature. This idea was supported at the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in April 2010, and the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth [UDRME] was adopted. In the same year, the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature [GARN] was established. They play the role of the international court which guarantees the rights of nature.The UN also declared “International Mother Earth Day” at the UN General Assembly 2009, and has been publishing reports on harmony with nature.

As of 2020, thirty countries around the world legally stipulated the Rights of Nature.

In 2008, Ecuador became the first country in the world to acknowledge the Rights of Nature in its Constitution. In 2011, the first lawsuits concerning the Rights of Nature were decided in Ecuador. The court recognized Vilcabamba River’s rights to “exist” and “maintain itself” according to the Constitution, and ruled that the government’s highway construction project be stopped.

In 2010, an ordinance recognizing the Rights of Nature was passed unanimously by the City Council of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, as part of a ban on shale gas drilling and fracking to prevent the destruction of the environment. This is the first major city in the U.S. that codified the legally enforceable Rights of Nature. In 2016, U.S. and Canadian tribal groups signed a treaty advocating continued protection of grizzly bears.

In 2012, the government of New Zealand reached an agreement with the Whanganui River Iwi and local Maori people, to recognize a legal personality for the Whanganui River.

In 2013, the campaign for the European Citizens Initiative for the Rights of Nature was launched. This initiative allowed citizens to present proposals to the European government to guarantee the Rights of Nature. Numerous discussions were also made in many European countries to incorporate the Rights of Nature into their domestic laws. On April 5, 2022, the Iniciativa Legislativa Popular [ILP] to recognize Mar Menor and its entire basin in Murcia, Spain, the largest saltwater lake in Europe, as the subject with the Rights of Nature, was overwhelmingly voted in the Congress Deputies, thus becoming the first ecosystem in Europe to be a subject of rights.

In December 2018, the White Earth Band, which belongs to the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe (the largest group of indigenous peoples living in Minnesota in North America), adopted the “Rights of the Manoomin” law securing legal rights of manoomin, or wild rice, a traditional staple crop of the Anishinaabe people (the indigenous peoples present in the Great Lakes region of Canada and the U.S.): ”Manoomin, or wild rice, within all the Chippewa ceded territories, possesses inherent rights to exist, flourish, regenerate, and evolve, as well as inherent rights to restoration, recovery, and preservation.” This is the first law to secure the legal rights of a particular plant species.

On Thursday, September 17, 2020, the Chilean justice system ordered a Canadian group, Barrick Gold, the world’s second-largest gold producer, to abandon construction work on Pascua Lama, a gigantic open-pit mine located on the border between Argentina and Chile. The environmental court in Antofagasta (northern Chile) upheld a 2018 decision by the government’s environmental agency, finding out that the company had repeatedly violated environmental standards. Barrick Gold will also have to pay a fine of 7 billion Chilean pesos [8.4 million USD].

In addition, countries such as Uganda, Colombia, Argentina, India, and Bangladesh have revised laws and issued rulings, acknowledging the Rights of Nature, and numerous experts are making efforts to prove the legal rights of nature.