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Feature - Issue #13

Nature Rights

Photography by Will Hearle

When Natalie Koffman and Flora Gregory discovered a mutual interest in the relationship between humans and nature, they embarked on a project that explores whether nature should have legal rights and what the world and our lives would look like if it did.

Joseph Beuys believed that everyone is an artist and that art has the potential to transform society. Through human activity, Beuys believed we can structure and shape society and the environment - it’s up to all of us to choose.

We first met doing an MA in Social Sculpture and Connective Practice at Oxford Brookes University. Later, in 2018, realising a mutual interest in the human-nature relationship and our increasing dislocation and disconnect from nature, we began working together and the work that we call Nature Rights started evolving.

We could see that the drive for change to readdress our balance with nature was coming from communities all around the world who were fighting to protect the environments where they lived. In 2018, for example, the Colombian Supreme Court recognised the rights of the Amazon River ecosystem and in the same year, the White Earth Band of the Chippewa Nation in Minnosota, US, adopted legal rights for manoomin or wild rice. Indigenous people particularly played an important part as culturally many see nature as a living entity with whom they have a relationship, with whom we belong, rather than the western concept of nature as object, as property and a resource of economic value to be exploited. A battle of principles is being played out between these two ideas.

An example of this is what is happening in Bolivia. Influenced by a resurgent Indigenous Andean spiritual worldview, which puts Pachamama, the Earth deity at the centre of life, Bolivia passed the world’s first laws granting all nature equal rights to humans in 2011 as a part of a complete restructuring of the country’s legal system. The Law of Mother Earth established 11 rights for nature. They include: the right to life and to exist, the right to continue vital cycles and processes free from human alteration, the right to pure water and clean air, the right to balance, the right not to be polluted and the right to not have cellular structure modified or genetically altered. It also enshrined the right of nature “to not be affected by mega-infrastructure and development projects that affect the balance of ecosystems and the local inhabitant communities”.

However, the Bolivian government is finding it tricky to abide by the Law of Mother Earth. Last year, the country exported gold worth $2.5bn, double the figure from 2020, making it the top export and representing 6.2% of GDP. Miners are currently pushing into the Amazon’s Madidi National Park and other protected areas.

Gregory and Koffman run a workshop called Nature Rights. It’s an invitation to explore the human relationship with nature through time and discuss with others the idea of nature having rights, and what the world and our lives would look like if/when we recognised that nature has rights. Each Nature Rights event contributes to a growing body of written and illustrated imagined futures.

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