Nature as subject of rights: utopian law or original vision of sustainable future?

This article is part of our thematic dossier COP21:

On December 3rd, we attended a conference at Place to B, on « Nature’s Rights and Human Rights: building legal, economic and social solutions to planetary crisis ». During the session Natalia Greene, Professor of Energy Efficiency at Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar (UASB) spoke on her advocacy for the recognition of the Rights of Nature in Ecuador’s Constitution and on her fight to prevent open pit mining in bio-diverse areas in Ecuador.

This article will discuss the content and efficiency of Nature’s Rights.




An iconoclast approach representing a shift from an anthropocentric perspective


Rights of nature laws recognize the inalienable and fundamental rights of natural communities and ecosystems to exist, thrive, regenerate, and evolve. This definition represents a major shift from an anthropocentric perspective, while intrinsically linked to human rights.


The idea requires an iconoclastic approach, but for years it begins to gain credence. In Bolivia, Ecuador and various municipalities in United Sates (U.S), Nature has rights. Ecuador marked a step by adopting a new Constitution in 2008 by means of a national referendum which grant essential rights to “Mother Earth”. Indeed, under Article 71, “Nature or Pachamama, where life is reproduced and exists, has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and evolutionary processes.” Under this framework, Nature becomes a subject of rights and “any person will be able to demand the recognition of the rights of nature before public organisms.”

Then, in 2010, Pittsburgh, in Pennsylvania, affirmed the rights of communities and nature over those of corporations when it enacted a city ordinance banning fracking techniques for shale gas extraction. Thus, it became the first major municipality in the U.S. to recognize rights for nature. Since then, various municipalities have passed similar ordinances.

Bolivia also marked a step further by adopting in 2011 its own Mother Earth law which gives nature 11 “rights” and mandates a radical ecological transition of Bolivia’s economy and society.


Rights of nature: directly relates to extractive industry?


We might wonder why these countries have taken these initiatives. A first response is that the countries in question are dealing with major issues related to extractive industry and deforestation. Yet, current environmental regulatory structures are mostly about legalizing the activities of corporations than to protect environment. By granting earth rights, laws recognizing the rights of nature empower communities to reject governmental actions which permit unwanted and damaging development to occur – by enabling communities to assert the rights of those ecosystems that would otherwise be destroyed.

By giving “Earth” a legal personality, it can, through its representatives (humans), bring an action to defend its rights. Thus, it secures the human right to a healthy environment, while securing the rights of the environment – nature – itself.



Words put to the test by realities on the ground


We may wonder if such law are more efficient to protect environment and human beings than “classic” environmental law.

R.Correa, president of Ecuador, made a remarkable speech the 1st day of the COP 21. Unfortunately, the echos from the defenders of the environment and Ms. Greene contradict this speech. The best example is the Yasuni project.

This project of international fund aimed at obtaining an international payment (at the rate of 100 million a year) for greenhouse gas emissions avoided by the non-exploitation of the oil reserves in the protected area Yasuni, which is sheltering the highest world biodiversity. For lack of having reached this sum, the Ecuadorian government began to grant licenses of oil exploitation in this zone of Amazonian forest, in spite of its status of protected area.

Thus it is an obvious fact that the government of Ecuador broke its own fundamental laws, including the right of the Nature and its status of multinational State.


The case of Ecuador is unfortunately not unique in South America. Bolivia also has a mining policy contradicting the rights asserted of Pasha Mama.

Also, the Brazilian government exceeds for its part the preliminary consent of the indigenous peoples on their territories to take forward at all costs its projects of big hydroelectric dams. But at least this government does not claim to defend the rights of the “Mother Earth”.


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