What if nature had rights?

At Womad this year lawyer Polly Higgins spoke on the emerging movement aimed at giving nature legal rights. Called Earth Jurisprudence, or more colloquially Wild Law or Earth Law, this branch of law stresses human interconnectedness and dependence with the natural world. Proponents of Wild Law posit that the recognition of human interconnectedness with nature is a prerequisite for ecological sustainability and should be recognised as the foundation of our legal system.

Great_Barrier_Reef_008_(5387514565)As Dr Peter Burdon, Senior Lecturer at the Adelaide Law School and deputy chair of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Ethics Specialist Group, discussed in a recent interview on Radio Adelaide  our current environmental laws are clearly failing to stop large scale destruction of our environment. Wild Law will provide a strong legal tool to use in the fight to save our environment (listen to the podcast).

Of course having the rights of nature enshrined in law will not necessarily stop the broadscale destruction of our environment. As with other laws, the law itself is not always enough of a deterrent. People and governments do break the law if they feel it advantageous to do so and they can get away with it.  Ecuador provides a salutary example of this.  In 2008 in a referendum the Ecuadorian people ratified changes to their Constitution to include a Chapter on Rights for Nature. Rather than treating nature as property under the law, the Rights for Nature articles acknowledge “that nature in all its life forms has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles.  And we – the people –  have the legal authority to enforce these rights on behalf of ecosystems.  The ecosystem itself can be named as the defendent.”


[Geoff Gallice CC-BY-2.0]

Shortly afterwards the Ecuadorian Government launched the ambitious Yasuni-ITT Initiative. Under this proposal the government would refrain indefinitely from exploiting the oil reserves of the  Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini (ITT) oil field within the Yasuni National Park, in exchange for 50% of the value of the reserves, or $3.6 billion over 13 years from the international community. The ITT oil field is estimated to have 846 million barrels, or 20% of the country’s proven oil reserve. Yasuni National Park is a UNESCO designated world biosphere reserve containing 100,000 species of animals, many which are not found anywhere else in the world. Each hectare of the forest reportedly contains more tree species than in all of North America! The aim of the initiative was to conserve biodiversity, protect indigenous peoples living in voluntary isolation, and avoid the release of CO2 emissions.
Sadly in 2013 the initiative was scrapped with the Government blaming the poor monetary response from the international community. Exploratory oil drilling is now underway in the Yasuni National Park. Groups are actively working to halt the oil drilling but they are facing increasingly repressive government actions.

In addition to the legal system, many other structures need to change before we will achieve the recognition of the right to life of all lifeforms, not just humans. But perhaps future generations will look back emergence of the Wild Law movement as one of the first steps in the creation of a truly sustainable society.

Find out more at:

United Natures – a United Nations of all species. Official documentary trailer 2013 from United Natures Media on Vimeo.




One thought on “What if nature had rights?

  1. I think if Nature had her full rights, the economy as we know it would crash. Our stupid economic system is based on endless growth, and all companies and banks are forced to increase their profits by at least 5% per year and whoever increases the most is the winner. How can you increase profits without decimating nature itself – very hard. We need to transition to a steady state economy and find a way to deal with human greed to stop us consuming more and more. Bring on the New Frugality and Simplicity Lifestyle movements. We also need to address our skyrocketing human population growth – we need everyone to be able to access family planning so every child is a wanted child. We can’t have infinite economic growth or infinite population growth on a finite planet.

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