• Opinion
  • September 14, 2018
  • 7 minutes
  • 1

Lawyers for rivers: Why nature is now getting rights of its own

Opinion: From Europe to Ecuador, is this the start of a legal revolution?

This opinion piece was written by Sinead Mowlds, a research associate at the Cambridge Central Asia Forum. If you’re interested in writing an opinion piece, take a look at Apolitical’s guide for contributors


The planet is made up of complex ecosystems that have evolved over millions of years, providing people with food, fresh water, clean air, energy, medicine and recreation. But since 1970, a 58% decline in the abundance of species on the planet has been linked to the pressures of unsustainable agriculture, fisheries and other human activities, contributing to habitat loss, degradation and climate change.

Policies relating to production and consumption systems tend to perceive nature as an asset to be consumed, and many disregard or assume there are no costs associated with the earth’s degradation.

One solution is to place monetary value on the environment and its services. Clear figures and targets help decision-makers to act collectively and advocates to clearly communicate on complex issues.

“Achieving environmental goals will require more than placing monetary value on nature”

But achieving environmental goals will require more than placing monetary value on nature. It will require rethinking how we value the environment, going beyond the perception of nature as a set of distinct and separate “goods and services”.

Nature exists and prospers in a complex system; dynamic, chaotic, and interdependent. Interactions in complex systems are nonlinear, with many direct and indirect feedback loops. The behaviour of the whole system can’t be predicted by looking at component parts, and policy and planning need to reflect this complexity.

The rights of nature: A legal revolution

So, concerned policymakers around the world are starting to try a new solution: granting not just monetary value but rights to nature.

Academic David Boyd has argued that widespread recognition of the rights of nature, treating it as a stakeholder of its own, is the foundation for a nascent legal revolution. Others see it as the end of the “separate and superior” thinking and means “changing our understanding of ownership”.

“The rights of the Vilcabamba river were represented in court”

Implementing the rights of nature is rooted in a justice-based approach. It has already been pioneered in countries such as Ecuador and Bolivia, and advocated for by organisations such as the Sierra Club and the Mary Robinson Foundation for Climate Justice. In 2008, Ecuador recognised the rights of nature in its constitution, and in 2011 the rights of the Vilcabamba river were represented in court, leading to stronger regulation of a local construction project.

Such an approach also encourages participatory policymaking, and leads to policies with structural, spatial, and temporal considerations — such as future generations and broader understandings of ownership. In 2014, providing rights to a river in New Zealand settled a 140-year old dispute between Maori tribes and the Crown. The river now has accountable, legal guardians — one from each disputing party.

In October 2017, for the first time, the rights of nature were institutionalised at regional level, when the EU Economic and Social Committee (EESC) voted to adopt Opinion Nat/712. The Opinion recognises the rights of nature and climate refugees, and calls for a Bill of Climate Rights.

The EESC approved the decision at plenary, which represents employers, trade unions, disability, environmental and other organisations from the 28 member states. The democratic process leading up to its adoption showed overwhelming support for a paradigm shift.

“In New Zealand a river now has accountable, legal guardians”

In fact, the EU institutions provide a particularly fertile space within which the rights of nature could take regional roots, with its judicial system, democratic structures and facilitation of harmonised collective action among member states. One example of this harmonised approach has been the EU Circular Economy Action Plan 2015 and various initiatives coming out of it.

But effectively implementing rights-of-nature policies in the EU or elsewhere presents several challenges.

First, to hold stakeholders accountable, data needs to be improved — and in some cases created. For example, globally comparable data on genetic diversity is non-existent.

Second, national and regional frameworks will be useful to promote collective action, but policies need to balance structure with flexibility for context-specific solutions.

Third, a justice-based approach would likely be an awkward fit for some countries, such as the US and Canada where rights-based approaches tend to be met with reluctance. To make effective environmental policy, these countries may have to consider other approaches, such as complex adaptive systems (CAS) or Innovations Systems, which recognise feedback loops and interdependence and promote adaptable policy design.

Achieving the ambitious

Adopting the rights of nature allows us to reconsider how we perceive and value the environment.

And there are already many examples of initiatives taking place around the world, at various institutional levels, providing an evidence-base for replicability. Two practical online platforms could also be of use to policy-makers and advocates: the EU Circular Economy Stakeholder Platform and the UN’s Harmony with Nature Knowledge Network.

Political leadership will be needed to build on this momentum and to create the institutions necessary for effective collective action — no simple matter. But the shift in thinking brought about by a rights-of-nature approach could help us achieve some of our most ambitious environmental goals. — Sinead Mowlds

(Picture credit: Pixabay)

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