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Nature Rights: What Countries Grant Legal Personhood Status to Nature And Why?

by Shanthi Van Zeebroeck Americas Asia Oceania Oct 6th 20226 mins
Nature Rights: What Countries Grant Legal Personhood Status to Nature And Why?

Nature rights are a controversial yet extremely important topic. Many countries and cultures around the world personify nature. In India for example, the Ganges river is referred to as “Mother Ganges”. In this article, we will explore some countries that not only believe that nature is a living entity but have also accorded legal personhood rights to it. 

Nature Rights

Environmental laws started off with how beneficial nature would be to man, considering man to be the “most precious” among other things in the world.  Under the Stockholm Conference of 1972, it was stated that  “safeguarding the homo sapiens” is the primary objective of environmental laws without “much emphasis on the protection of other components of the environment.” 

In recent times, there has been a shift in the primary objective of environmental laws from considering man to be the most precious to nature being the most precious among other things. This shift from protecting nature for the benefit of men (anthropo-centric) to protecting nature for the benefit of nature (eco-centric) is evident in several countries. Here, we analyse how 6 countries around the world accord legal personhood rights to nature and why.

What Nature Rights Look Like Around the World

1. Ecuador

Ecuador was the first country in the world to accord legal rights to nature. In the country’s constitution, under Chapter 7, Articles 71 to 74 recognize the rights of “Pachamama” – or Mother Earth –  to “maintain and generate its cycles, structure, functions, and evolutionary processes”. 

The right was established after a high court case in the country ruled that mining in a protected region of the Ecuadorian rainforest violated the rights of nature. In a landmark decision, Ecuador’s government was ordered to revoke mining permits granted to Enami, the country’s state mining company, and its Canadian counterpart, Cornerstone Capital Resources, for “exploratory operations” in the protected Los Cedros area. It was opined by the justices in ruling on the case that it is quintessential to ensure that mining activities do not contribute to the extinction of species, destroy the natural cycles, and interfere with the ecosystems. 

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2. United States 

One of the first countries that established nature rights and adopted them into their legal system is the United States, in one of its founding states, Pennsylvania. In 2006, local municipalities in this US east coast state established the rights of nature by adopting them into their own local jurisdictions. In fact, the borough of Tamaqua in eastern Schuylkill County was the first community to enact rights for nature. Since then, more than three dozen communities have adopted such laws. In November 2010, the City of Pittsburgh became the first major municipality in the United States to recognize the Rights of Nature.

3. Bolivia

Bolivia’s indigenous people make up the majority of this South American country’s population. Respecting the majority view that nature is Mother Earth, Bolivia passed The Framework Law on Mother Earth and Integral Development to Live Well on October 15, 2012.  

Under the law, Bolivia has accorded legal personhood rights to nature with a promise to recognise and respect the rights and knowledge of the indigenous population’s belief that nature has the capacity to regenerate natural systems. The law mandates that men must respect nature by respecting the natural environment and must live in harmony and balance with it. 

You might also like: The Case of the Silala River: Between the Laws of Men and the Laws of Nature

4. India

In India, a high court in Chennai, the capital of the southern state of Tamil Nadu, took the stance that nature is a person that needs protection.

In the case of A Periakaruppan v. The Principal Secretary, a retired man attempted to deed away land that was protected. Since there was no one to represent and defend the land, the presiding judge invoked the doctrine of Parens Patriae (Parent of the nation). In law, this doctrine refers to a state’s power to intervene where a vulnerable member of society, such as a child, is not accorded the protection he or she deserved by the parents. While nature is not a child, in this case, its vulnerability was emphasized when the judge opined that where nature has no one to protect it, the nation must step in and do it just like it would for a vulnerable person. 

By deciding to invoke the doctrine, the judge stressed the importance of preserving nature the way ancestors in India have preserved it, like a person. She (the judge) did not stop there. Referring to nature as “She”, she described that “she is grasping for breath” and must therefore be accorded “constitutional rights” that can be invoked by a person. Accordingly, nature was given the same rights as humans.

5. New Zealand

This island country situated in the southwestern Pacific Ocean is one of the nations that pushed for environmental laws in favour of legal personhood rights to nature. The government has accorded legal personhood rights to rivers and forests. 

Under the Treaty of Waitangi, the country’s foundation document, two Settlement Agreements were signed between the indigenous people, Māori iwi, and the New Zealand government.

Under the Te Urewera Act, signed in 2012, the original status of the Urewera Forest as a national park was removed and replaced with legal personhood. The Act even used Māori language to reiterate that the forest has its own mana (authority) and its own mauri (life force). 

Two years later, in 2014, another settlement agreement between the Whanganui iwi and the New Zealand government gave legal personhood rights to the Whanganui river. The law recognised the “spirit” of the river, that it is above human sovereignty and therefore owned by no one. 

6. Panama

The Central American country of Panama has joined forces with other nations to enact ecocentric laws to protect nature. On February 24, 2022, the country published a new law whereby it recognised the right of nature to “exist, persist and regenerate”. 

Panamanian Law No. 287 (the Act) goes further and recognises the obligations of the country to incorporate this law into all forms of rules, regulations, and policies. In addition, under Article 8 of the Act, and per the doctrine of In dubio pro natura principle – which means that in case of doubt, all proceedings before courts, administrative bodies and other decision-makers must be resolved in such a way as to favor protection and conservation of the environment, giving preference to less harmful alternatives, cases must be solved with “preferences…that are less harmful to nature”. 

You might also like: Indigenous Community Wins Recognition of its Land Rights in Panama

Are Nature Rights Really Necessary?

The countries listed above are great examples of how environmental laws should focus on the protection of nature for the benefit of nature as opposed to the benefit of man. Yet, at best, public discourse and debates surrounding this shift from anthropocentric to ecocentric environmental laws that accord legal personhood rights to nature are inherently problematic. Is legal personhood really a necessary status that needs to be accorded to nature before we respect and protect it? 

There is also a problematic issue of ownership of property. If we consider nature as a person, is it also not true then that man may not own nature in the form of land and homes, or have riparian rights over it? Ultimately, if we take it even further, then no one will be able to own anything related to nature.

On the other hand, nature as a person does not necessarily imply that men owning it are claiming dominance over it. They could be seen as the caretakers, along the lines of a “trustee for nature”. In this way, they act as beneficiaries on behalf and in the best interests of nature. 

After all, men cannot exist without the environment in which they live, which is nature, and must protect it in order to protect themselves. In reality, nature does not need legal personhood rights at all. If men decide not to protect it, they are ultimately harming themselves. Ultimately then, nature is more precious than man when compared to all other things in this world. 

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About the Author

Shanthi Van Zeebroeck

Shanthi is a current international faculty member, and an editorial board member for UNESCO’s chair in bioethics where she develops and teaches courses and publishes scientific articles in law, human rights and philosophy. Some of the modules she leads include human genome editing (Crispr), nanotechnology, corporate social responsibility, human rights, international laws, interdisciplinary bioethics, AI, and philosophy.

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