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Bangladesh is often called the “Land of Rivers” and the Supreme Court echoed this sentiment in July 2019, when it determined that all 700 rivers have standing to sue those who harm them in court. This decision marked a milestone in the rights of nature movement- a growing international movement that seeks recognition of ecosystems and species as living entities with legal rights, rather than merely property for human use. Bangladesh now joins 28 other countries with existing or pending legislation giving legal rights to nature, including New Zealand’s Whanganui River and Columbia’s Amazon Rainforest. But how exactly are rights of nature enforced, and can they effectively protect our Earth?    

How Rights of Nature Work

Giving nature legal rights is not a novel idea. Indigenous populations have given nature rights in their customary law for centuries past. However, the proliferation of the rights of nature in environmental law is largely credited to the work of University of Southern California Law Professor Christopher Stone, who argued in 1972 in his seminal article “Should Trees have Standing?” that “nature should have its own voice” and be able to bring a legal case, as any plaintiff would, against its wrongdoers. Although the idea that forests, rivers and even wild rice can “speak” in court might seem peculiar to us at first, we only have to look to corporations and nation-states as everyday examples of entities that have been recognised as legal persons and can nominate representatives to litigate on their behalf. Giving nature rights works in the same way, with legal custodians like the Bangladeshi National River Conservation Commission or even citizens stepping “into the shoes” of nature and suing on its behalf. The content of these rights generally cover the right for nature to “exist, persist, evolve and regenerate,” and like other rights, compel legal remedies including the payment of damages if infringed upon. Given that who is given legal rights is constantly expanding- women, children, and African American slaves were once considered rightless, after all- there is no reason that nature cannot also be given legal rights. 

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How Legal Rights can Protect Nature

What makes the rights of nature movement so powerful is that it places people and nature on a level field. While environmental law takes an anthropocentric perspective, treating nature as property for human exploitation, giving nature rights ensures that its interests will not be overshadowed by corporations’ economic interests or subject to the changing priorities of governments and individuals. For instance, in Ecuador, the first country to enshrine the rights of nature in its constitution in 2008, the Provincial Court of Loja held in 2011 that the Vilcabamba River’s right “to exist, to be maintained and to the regeneration of its vital cycles, structures and functions” was violated by the construction of a road next to it, which involved the dumping of rock and excavation material on riverside land. Despite continued construction of the road, the court required the defendant, the Provincial Government of Loja, to adhere to environmental recommendations made by the Ministry of Environment, including performing rehabilitative and corrective actions like storing the rubbish from the construction elsewhere. This case was the first successful rights of nature case in the world, illustrating how including nature in our moral circle, as a legal person equal to us human beings, leads to greater prioritisation of its interests. 

A rights of nature approach is not only legally enforceable, it also encourages us to “personalise and reframe our relationship with nature” and indigenous peoples. For example, the Yarra River Protection Act, which gave legal rights to Melbourne’s Yarra River in 2017, affirmed the rivers and lands as an integrated living entity central to the history and livelihood of Australia and paid respects to the wisdom of its traditional owners, the Wurundjeri people. By retelling the story of the Yarra River from a bicultural and Earth-centred perspective through law, not only is nature better protected, a pathway for reconciliation with indigenous peoples and nature is also provided.

Addressing Critiques of the Rights of Nature Movement

An oft-cited critique of giving nature rights is its uncertainty and impracticality. Given the sheer size of a river or forest, how do we pinpoint the blame on one household or business? Even if we can identify a defendant, how can we calculate the human cost of environmental degradation, for example the depletion of a rare fish species or the pollution of a river, in dollar terms? In response, the uncertainty of rights of nature may largely be a matter of incipience. As more cases are brought before the court, clearer jurisprudence is likely to emerge. For now, despite the inevitable difficulties in identifying defendants in complex cases with multiple causes of and parties to environmental harm, it is encouraging to see precedent cases like the Vilcabamba River case, in which successful litigation was brought in more contained areas where the damage clearly emanated from one entity.

Another critique is that involving courts necessarily implicates barriers to justice, in particular the extortionate costs required to bring a lawsuit and dependence on fallible human enforcement of legal rights. While these are undoubtedly problems requiring serious scrutiny, these are systemic problems that do not target rights of nature specifically. Additionally, even the threat of a lawsuit might deter companies from environmental degradation.

Where Does That Leave Us?

The rights of nature movement is still in its infancy, and while many questions remain unanswered, it is apparent that giving rights to nature holds great promise. The dynamic applicability of a rights of nature framework in both the Global North and South, from Ecuador to Bangladesh to Australia, demonstrates the potential for any country with an established legal system to adopt this approach. Giving legal personhood to nature humanises our ecosystems as living beings rather than exploitable objects, powerfully generating legal and cultural incentives to treat our Earth with greater respect. Indeed, such a fundamental paradigm shift might be what we need to combat climate change. 

A $9.3 billion residential and tourism development has been approved within the buffer zone of the Can Gio Mangrove Biosphere Reserve here in this city of 13 million, the largest urban area in Vietnam. The project was proposed by the Can Gio Tourism Urban Area Joint Stock Company, a subsidiary of Vinhomes, the real estate arm of Vingroup, the country’s largest private company. The Can Gio Tourist City would span 2,870 hectares (7,100 acres), largely on land that would be filled in along the South China Sea coast using sand.

The 75,740-hectare (187,200-acre) reserve was established in 2000 and is overseen by a local management board. Home to one of the world’s largest rehabilitated mangrove forests, it protects the area from storm surges while also acting as a “green lung” for a heavily industrialised region.

The projected completion date for the Vinhomes development is 2031, when planners expect 230,000 people will live there long-term, and about 9 million tourists will come and go annually. In comparison, just over 70,000 people currently live in Can Gio (pronounced similarly to ‘yo’), the largest of Ho Chi Minh City’s 24 districts by area.

Tourism development in Can Gio has been relatively slow, as the region can only be reached by ferry, but construction of a huge bridge linking the district to the rest of Ho Chi Minh City is expected to begin in 2022, making it easier to reach.

The response to the approval of the “tourist city,” which was first proposed in 2000 but was stalled until Vinhomes took over the project, has been largely negative. The company increased its original planned size from 821 hectares (2,030 acres) to 2,870 hectares.

In early July, 23 prominent environmentalists, academics and researchers sent a petition calling for an independent assessment of the project to Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, the People’s Committee of Ho Chi Minh City, the legislative National Assembly, and other government bodies. It is rare for Vingroup to be publicly criticised in Vietnam, as the company is known to react aggressively to such complaints.

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An English-language version of the petition shared with Mongabay says the planned development “poses a serious threat on the Can Gio mangrove forest, which in turn may lead to a series of harm to the urban regions of HCMC, whose population and authority are already facing major environmental challenges such as pollution, floods and land collapses.”

The petition is now online, in both English and Vietnamese, and had been signed by more than 5,900 people at the time of writing. It adds that the project poses huge threats related to erosion, flooding and water stagnation, all of which could have serious environmental and social impacts, while also threatening the integrity of Can Gio’s unique, important mangrove ecosystem.

The Nikkei Asia Review reports that 138 million cubic meters (4.9 billion cubic feet) of sand would be needed to reclaim land for the project. Some media reports have said this sand would be dredged from the nearby Mekong Delta, which is already facing serious subsidence due to sand mining and a loss of sediment caused by upstream dams. None of the activists contacted for this story would speak on the record, even anonymously, for fear of retaliation from Vingroup or the police. One environmentalist said they had been repeatedly harassed by the police for their outspoken criticism of the project on Facebook.

Vocal activists can face serious consequences for their actions here. In 2017, an environmental blogger known as Mother Mushroom was sentenced to 10 years in prison for “conducting propaganda against the state” following a major environmental disaster. She was eventually released early and now lives in exile in Houston.

Vingroup did not respond to requests for comment on the project.

While detailed plans of Can Gio Tourist City aren’t public, one satellite rendering shared widely on social media shows a huge stretch of land, including a large artificial lake, tacked on to the southern end of Can Gio, where the district meets the East Sea, as the South China Sea is known here.

This means there would not be construction within the heavily restricted core area of the mangrove biosphere reserve.

However, it is a delicate ecosystem.

Mangroves in general are highly sensitive to changes in hydrology and sedimentation,” said Marie Arnaud, a research fellow at the University of Birmingham who has conducted extensive research on Can Gio. “For example, if you decrease sediment supply, then you might have erosion of the mangrove’s land, which can cause mangrove loss. It has been observed in many parts of the world, mostly due to upstream sand mining, but it has also been observed from areas which have been dredged.”

The Vinhomes development would be downstream from the mangroves, but it is not clear where the sand used to reclaim land will come from. Adding thousands of hectares of land just a few miles from the reserve will have an impact.

“If they dredge sand to create land or build, they’ll hurt the sedimentation and the hydrology of the mangroves,” Arnaud said. “Then, those buildings are static, while normally this area is quite dynamic. This means that there will be sand accumulation in some spots, but also places where the soil will be eroded because the dynamic is moving.”

Some supporters of the plan have noted that it will not be located within the mangrove reserve’s core, but Marc Goichot, WWF freshwater lead for Asia Pacific, says this doesn’t mean it makes sense.

“If it’s closer to the coast, it’s not necessarily better because again, it’s dynamic,” he said. “If the area is a marsh or partially or completely on the water, then they’re going to dredge material out from the riverbed, which will starve the coast of its replacement sediment and put at risk the entire existing system.”

He went on: “Even if they bring material in from far away, which they probably won’t because it would be expensive, then you’re burying the area and changing the ecosystem completely, and the dynamic of currents and the movement of nutrients.”

This would impact fisheries and aquatic life in the area. The huge number of people that the Can Gio Tourist City would attract, meanwhile, will also create problems.

“This might induce pressure on local fish, crabs and bivalves,” Arnaud said. “People from [central] Ho Chi Minh City like to go to Can Gio to eat seafood because it’s cheaper, but if so many come it might really decrease the density of the fauna. And if people are not sensible, you’ll have a lot of plastic pollution, and possibly sewage runoff as well.”

Then there is the placement of the development, directly on the coast.

“This project will be high-risk,” Arnaud added. “With climate change, you have storms that are becoming more frequent and stronger, you have sea level rise, and this touristic spot will be at the front of all of this.”

Featured image by: Flickr

This article was originally published on Mongabay, written by Tim Rist, and is republished here as part of an editorial partnership with Earth.Org.


According to a new study commissioned by the Campaign for Nature charity, increasing protection for and preserving up to at least 30% of the planet’s land and oceans would bring economic and non-monetary benefits that outweigh the costs 5-to-1. Currently, only about 15% of the world’s land and 7% of the ocean have some level of protection. Additional protections, with investments up until 2030, are predicted to lead to an average increase of $250 billion in economic output and $350 billion in improved ecosystem services annually when compared to the present day.

Ecosystems around the world are facing total collapse, with a million species threatened with extinction. However, according to the report, an estimated investment of $140 billion per year up to 2030 to place 30% of the earth’s land and sea under protection may help avoid this mass extinction and restore important habitats while also bringing in additional benefits across multiple sectors, including agriculture, fisheries, forestry and the nature conservation sector. The nature conservation sector is reported to be one of the fastest growing sectors and is predicted to grow at 4-6% per year as compared to less than 1% for the agriculture, fisheries and forestry industry. 

The natural environment plays an extremely important role in supporting economic activity, both directly, by providing resources and raw materials required as inputs for production of goods and services, and indirectly, through services that are provided by our ecosystem such as water purification, flood risk management, coastal protection and nutrient cycling. Therefore, it is critical to secure natural resources for economic growth and development, not only for today but for future generations to come. 

Economic growth requires the combination of different types of capital to produce goods and services, including produced capital, human capital, natural capital and social capital. Unlike the others, natural capital, such as water, land, and fossil fuels, has non-renewable and finite elements with thresholds beyond which dramatic changes may occur, which may be irreversible. Therefore, since natural capital plays a substantial role in producing economic growth, it needs to be used sustainably and efficiently to ensure growth in the long run. 

Ecosystem services also play an important role in tackling global warming. While they are a part of the solution to the climate crisis, they are also affected by it. Well-managed ecosystems help societies adapt to climate hazards and changes by providing a range of services, including climate regulation, that reduce vulnerability to climate variations in agriculture and cities at a regional and continental scale, as well as protection of coastal areas and watersheds. However, there will be a gradual negative impact on these services due to the changes in temperature and other threats such as pollution, over-exploitation of resources etc. This means that there would be a need for investment into man-made provision of these services that are already being provided by nature. By preserving ecosystems, this future cost can be avoided. For example, the effects of climate change can be devastating to vulnerable coastal areas and increased sea level would contribute to flooding and coastal erosion. To combat this, coastal protection structures would have to be put in place, the cost of which could come up to £39 billion, depending on the type of structure. These would include costs of design, construction, operation and maintenance, monitoring and replacement.

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Furthermore, the investment into preserving more of nature is much lower in comparison to the economic benefits it would bring and to the financial support that is given to other sectors. According to Enric Sala, co-author of the report, investing in protecting nature would represent only 0.16% of global GDP and would actually be less than one third of the amount the government already spends on subsidising activities that play an active role in destroying nature. In 2015, global fossil fuel subsidies were as high as $4.7 trillion, 6.3% of the global GDP

Preserving nature also benefits mental and physical health. Not only does the natural environment provide capital for production of goods and services, exposure to nature also boosts human mental health and wellbeing. Poor mental health imposes major costs on economies, caused by poorer efficiency and productivity at the workplace. A study estimates that the global economic value of national parks based on the mental health of its visitors, may be up to $6 trillion annually.

Furthermore, protecting nature reduces the risk of new zoonotic disease outbreaks such as COVID-19, which, as predicted by the June 2020 Global Economic Prospects, will cause a 5.2% contraction in the global GDP in 2020. Experts have suggested that the rise of zoonotic diseases can be blamed on high demand for animal protein, unsustainable agricultural practices, exploitation of wildlife and the climate crisis, which has changed the way that animals and humans interact with each other. As said by the UNEP Executive Director Inger Anderson, pandemics have a devastating effect on human lives and economies and to prevent future outbreaks, we must increase our efforts in protecting the natural environment. 

While there would be a short-term cost of $140 billion annually by 2030, it would avoid depletion of natural resources and ecosystem services, both of which directly and indirectly aid economic growth. Nature preservation and exposure has a positive impact on mental health, which in turn would boost efficiency, as well as physical health, by reducing the risk of zoonotic diseases, such as COVID-19.  


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