A global movement to give nature rights is growing in the face of a mass extinction eventdriven by climate change and human over-use of the natural world.
Recent assessments show one third of freshwater fish species under threat of extinction alongside at least one quarter of local livestock breeds, and large numbers of the bees, bats and birds which pollinate crops. Linked to the decline of species, in the last two decades alone around 20 percent of the land we use to grow food has become less productive. Responding to these and other threats to nature, as well as high-profile campaigns like Extinction Rebellion, initiatives are increasingly taking root from the United States to India, and Ecuador to Bolivia, Turkey and Nepal, that give rights to nature.
They aim to respect and protect the living environment, and change how human society relates to its own supporting biosphere. In February 2019 voters in Toledo, Ohio, approved a ballot to give Lake Erie, suffering heavy pollution, rights normally associated with a person. But the story which brought this shift to international attention was the tale of a river in New Zealand.
On March 20th, 2017, the New Zealand government passed legislation recognizing the Whanganui River as holding rights and responsibilities equivalent to a person. The river – or those acting for it – will now be able to sue for its own protection under the law. This was no overnight innovation; it was the culmination of two centuries of physical and legal struggle by the Whanganui people against colonial control of the river and its water, including eight years of intensive negotiation.
The final settlement is considered one of the best examples of using existing legal structures and concepts to protect nature. It also prescribes an unusually advanced form of collaborative governance that may inspire others and prove useful for rapid transition in the face of climate change. Accepting a non human part of nature as a legal entity requires a conceptual shift away from placing humanity at the centre of everything. This understanding could generate other legal changes handing power to other parts of our natural world. MORE