SIENA, Italy—The rights of nature movement has celebrated its first European victory as Spain enshrined into national law the rights of the Mar Menor lagoon to exist and be protected and preserved.
Mar Menor, Europe’s largest saltwater lagoon, has suffered from massive die-offs of aquatic life in recent years brought on by pollution from agriculture, sewage and other development.
In 2020, Eduardo Salazar, a Spanish environmental lawyer, and Teresa Vicente Gimenez, a professor of philosophy of law at Murcia University, began a quest for legislative recognition of Mar Menor’s rights, the highest form of protection under the law, with a “popular legislative initiative,” a participatory democratic mechanism in Spain’s constitution. Salazar called the existing conventional environmental laws intended to protect the lake “useless.”
Salazar and Gimenez described the legislation, which was overwhelmingly approved by Spain’s legislature, at a meeting here this month of the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature (GARN), a legal movement based on the premise that nature—forests and rivers and wild animals and ecosystems—has inherent legal rights to exist and regenerate, just as humans possess human rights by virtue of their existence.
The gathering of more than 60 lawyers, Indigenous leaders, economists and scientists plotted strategy for the coming decade and took stock of Mar Menor’s protection and GARN’s other recent triumphs, including Panama’s adoption of national rights of nature legislation and Ecuadorian Constitutional Court decisions enforcing the rights of Pacha Mama, or Mother Earth, against harm to sensitive cloud forests and wild animals.
Panama in February became the second nation after Bolivia to recognize the rights of nature in national legislation. Constanza Prieto Figelist, Latin America legal director with the Earth Law Center, told GARN members gathered here that lawyers in the country are now working on enforcement actions to protect sensitive ecosystems and species, like leatherback sea turtles.
In Colombia, the country with the highest number of rights of nature cases despite not having adopted rights of nature legislation, new efforts are underway to have the rights of ecosystems in and around the Bogota area judicially recognized and to have natural areas impacted by years of armed conflict in the country recognized as victims of that conflict, according to Juan Acosta, a Colombian GARN member. Previous court rulings in the country have recognized the rights of rivers, including the Atrato River, lakes, and national parks.
And in Argentina, rights of nature advocates have asked the country’s Supreme Court to recognize the inherent rights of jaguars living in the Gran Chaco forest, the second largest forest in South America after the Amazon rainforest.
Today, only 20 jaguars are left in Gran Chaco, one of the most heavily deforested regions in the world primarily due to agriculture, mostly soy and livestock production. The lawsuit, filed in 2019 by Greenpeace against Argentina and four provincial governments, asks for an end to deforestation in the Argentinian Gran Chaco forest and asks the court to recognize that jaguars have a right to exist, enjoy their ecosystem, maintain health, wellbeing, food reproduction and security.
The case is pending before Argentina’s Supreme Court, which has yet to schedule a time period when interested parties submit amicus curiae briefs, Enrique Viale, one of the lawyers who filed the case, said.
Meanwhile, in Europe, beyond the new legislation in Spain protecting the Mar Menor, a citizen’s initiative in Germany led by GARN member Hans Leo Bade seeks legislative recognition that “Everyone has the freedom, within the limits of the law and good morals, to do everything that does not harm the rights of others and the rights of the natural world.” A separate effort is underway to recognize the legal rights of the entire Mediterranean Biome.
GARN’s closing declaration here said that the “empty pledges from international negotiations on climate and biodiversity” stand in stark relief to the legal, economic and political change necessary to counter the planet’s environmental and climate crisis.
In the declaration, the group said that “ecological, social and spiritual crises of today” are a consequence of a “dominant worldview that sees the living Earth as a ‘resource’ to be extracted, commodified, privatized and exploited.” The document called for a “deep transformation” from “human-centered to Earth-centered” legal systems, citing the recognition of nature’s rights as “an essential step on this path.”
GARN was formed in 2010 to create societies that live harmoniously with the rest of the natural world. Now, 39 countries and Indigenous nations—among them the United States, Canada, Mexico, Colombia, Bangladesh, Bolivia, India, New Zealand, Ecuador, Uganda and most recently Spain—have seen judicial rulings, national legislation or local laws recognizing the rights of nature. Researchers estimate there are more than 400 initiatives to recognize the rights of nature worldwide.
“In 2010 we were trying to work out how to take powerful, but largely unknown, ideas global… where there were very few examples of implementation,” said Cormac Cullinan, a South African lawyer and one of the alliance’s co-founders. “Now, it’s very different.”
The movement has also spawned large-scale restoration programs for damaged ecosystems, a Global Parliamentary Front for lawmakers promoting the movement, academic research about the rights of nature, training programs for expert witnesses in rights of nature litigation and the International Tribunal for the Rights of Nature, a citizens’ tribunal on which Cullinan serves that just spent 10 days gathering facts about destructive environmental practices and violence against Indigenous peoples and other local communities in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest.
The alliance’s growth, Cullinan said, shows that the ideas behind the movement are now regarded as “legitimate subjects of debate.”
A Reaffirmed Commitment to Advancing Indigenous Rights
When the conference opened, Casey Camp-Horinek, elder and hereditary drum keeper of the Ponca Tribe of Oklahoma, reminded attendees that the roots of the rights of nature movement are based on the Indigenous understanding that humans are part of, and interdependent with, nature.
“We know that we are nature protecting itself,” she said.
The Ponca Tribe in 2018 recognized that “Ponca people, like all people, are part of nature” and that Ponca law has always recognized the “inherent” and “inalienable” rights of nature, including the rights to life, to exist and to be free from “contamination, pollution and toxic or radioactive waste.”
Earlier this year, the tribe adopted a law recognizing the rights of the Ní’skà, (the Arkansas River) and the Ni’ží’dè, (the Salt Fork River). Camp-Horinek said the tribe is consulting with lawyers on how to bring forward enforcement actions, which face complex legal hurdles because of U.S. Supreme Court precedent that limits the application of tribal laws to non-tribe members.
From the start of the rights of nature movement in 2006, it was an unlikely marriage between western legal concepts—specifically the language of rights—and Indigenous worldviews about nature that western legal systems historically have marginalized or sought to erase.
While the movement has readily embraced Indigenous worldviews about nature, Camp-Horinek and some other Indigenous leaders in GARN said they wanted GARN to go further in recognizing the rights of Indigenous people to their native lands.
Tom Goldtooth, a member of the Navajo Nation and executive director of the mainly U.S.-based Indigenous Environmental Network, said that he wanted to see the rights of nature movement recognize that Indigenous peoples have an “inherent relationship” with the Earth. Western legal systems, from Europe to Australia and the United States, have resisted that recognition, Goldtooth said.
Most recently, such resistance helped doom a draft constitution in Chile to replace the country’s dictatorship-era charter. The document was voted down in a referendum, in part because of resistance to recognizing the country as “plurinational,” meaning it is home to multiple nations, including different Indigenous peoples.
The draft also contained language, for which there appeared to be broad support, that nature has “the right to respect and protect its existence, to the regeneration, maintenance and restoration of its functions and dynamic balances, which include natural cycles, ecosystems and biodiversity.”
In a sign that the movement’s goals are expanding, GARN’s final declaration said its members are committed to advancing “Indigenous rights, sovereignty and jurisprudence,” and the “wisdom of Indigenous Peoples, whose laws are drawn from their inherent relationship with Mother Earth.”
During the conference, GARN’s members grappled with how to broaden the movement while maintaining its coherence. One of the debates dealt with whether to align with other like-minded movements and institutions, from “the commons,” a social movement that focuses on eschewing private property rights and governmental control of land in favor of communal management, to “degrowth,” an economic theory that believes in shrinking rather than growing economies for human wellbeing. Members also debated whether to align with religious organizations whose teachings recognize nature as a divine entity and overlap with the ideas behind the rights of nature movement..
Some GARN members said religious institutions played a role in both strengthening their rights of nature work, and in calling them to the movement in the first place. Yolanda Esguerra and Candy Hidalgo, two Filipino advocates with Philippine Misereor Partnership, have since 2018 led a campaign to have the rights of nature recognized in Filipino law and introduced into the country’s education system.
They said that they became rights of nature advocates, in part, because of Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’, entitled “On care for our common home.” That year, Francis told world leaders at the United Nations that, “[I]t must be stated that a true ‘right of the environment’ does exist…We live in communion with it, since the environment itself entails ethical limits which human activity must acknowledge and respect…Any harm done to the environment, therefore, is harm done to humanity.”
In their home country, where advocacy work can be dangerous, Hidalgo and Esguerra said they have found key support from the Catholic Bishops Alliance of the Philippines, which in 2019 and 2022 explicitly integrated the rights of nature into their pastoral letters.
But the history of the Catholic Church gave some of the other GARN members pause about approaching the church for a formal association. Goldtooth said that the Catholic Church has never revoked its endorsement of the Doctrine of Discovery, which alleged that Indigenous peoples did not have souls and that their territories were terra nullius, or no-man’s land. The doctrine gave moral and legal cover to centuries of colonization, human rights abuses and the denial of the inherent relationship between Indigenous peoples and their territories.
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Goldtooth had been part of a group of Indigenous leaders who met with high level officials in the church a few years ago about the issue, but nothing had come of it. The issue bubbled up again during the Pope’s visit to Canada earlier this year, where he issued an official apology for the church’s role in forcibly removing Indigenous children from their parents and putting them in residential boarding schools where they faced sexual, psychological and other abuses.
There was no resolution to the issue, and GARN members agreed to continue talking.
Members also debated the utility of international environmental treaties. Some lawyers in the group suggested the pursuit of a binding international treaty on the rights of nature. Others favored supporting localized efforts at the national, state and local levels.
“Trying to get a U.N. treaty requires a huge investment of time and money—possibly decades,” Ben Price, a community organizer who helped enact the world’s first rights of nature law in Tamaqua, Pennsylvania, said. “It seems like a lot of things happening all over the world will have a bigger impact than one big thing happening in one place.”
Some of the lawyers working with, and in, developing countries felt differently.
“International law helps people at the local level push their governments at the national level for rights,” said Figelist, the Latin America legal director with the Earth Law Center.
Figelist preferred working to have rights of nature language worked into existing treaties, like the Convention on Biological Diversity. She said her organization was in the process of adding such language and that she had seen the galvanizing effect international human rights law can have for people working in countries without strong track records on human rights.
This debate was also left unresolved. Still, members agreed to invest resources into educating and training new lawyers and judges, strengthen the work of the International Rights of Nature Tribunal, support the creation of citizen tribunals called Earth Assemblies, and support the ongoing campaign initiative to make ecocide a crime before the International Criminal Court.
“When I look at GARN, I can only see growth from here,” Camp-Horinek said in an interview after the meeting. “I can see all around the world people are listening to Mother Earth and Father Sky and the sacred waters. They’re finding within their own communities and state and national structures how to make the rights of nature relevant.”