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Feature - Issue #7

Rights of Nature

A number of countries have passed laws granting rights to nature, but we should not assume that this legal mechanism always benefits the environment.

Ideas can languish in corners of the collective imagination for a long time. Sometimes, they spring to life unexpectedly and become, all of a sudden, widely accepted. This is what happened in the last decade to a once radical idea: giving rights to nature.

In practical terms, it all started in 2006 in Tamaqua, Pennsylvania, which became the first US municipality to adopt a local bylaw recognising the rights of nature to exist, thrive and evolve; but really the idea came to international prominence with Ecuador’s 2008 constitution, the first country in the world to grant constitutional rights to nature: the right to respect, the right to maintenance and regeneration, and the right of restoration.

Not too long ago, this idea was considered too radical, even crazy. But since Ecuador passed its landmark constitution, an increasing number of jurisdictions, at all levels of the law, are starting to either implement, or seriously consider it. Technically speaking, there’s no barrier to nature having rights. It can have them, just like other non-human entities do (ships, corporations, trusts, monuments). In legal theory, there is a long tradition that argues that, basically, anything can become a legal entity as long as lawmakers make the appropriate declaration and provide the necessary framework.

So, the fact that increasing numbers of lawmakers are deciding to make nature a legal subject should not surprise us. But we should recognise how different laws reflect different ways of understanding the natural world, and how they influence the balance of power between different groups of people. These cases reflect the multiple interests that lie behind politico-legal processes. If we care about using the tool of rights for both environmental and social justice, we have to pay close attention to these differences.

Photograph by John Steele / Alamy Stock Photo.

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