A True Earth Day is Grounded in Rights for People & Nature

Apr 19th, 2018 | By | Category: Environment/Sustainability

By Suzanne York

As Earth Day celebrations take place in communities across the country this weekend, it’s a good time to consider how we can really honor the earth.

[Climate March, New York City, 2014. Photo: Suzanne York]

[Climate March, New York City, 2014. Photo: Suzanne York]

Undertaking efforts such as eating less meat, taking public transit, using clean energy, and so on counts for a lot. Yet with so much on the line for the planet as a whole – increasing climate change impacts, mass extinctions, ocean acidification, loss of arable land – what is needed is true, systemic change in support of the planet. That change is grounded acknowledging nature’s rights.

The Best Path Forward for the Planet

Rights of nature is a holistic concept and movement, much of it based on indigenous wisdom, that offers a positive vision for the world today.  It recognizes that:

  • nature in all its life forms has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles;
  • people have the legal authority and responsibility to enforce these rights on behalf of natural ecosystems;
  • an ecosystem itself can be named as a rights bearing subject.

Lest you think this is some abstract topic and unlikely to take root (pun intended), consider the following:

Colombia: Earlier this month, the Supreme Court of Colombia told the government it must take urgent action to protect its Amazon rainforest to halt rising deforestation. In its ruling, the court recognized Colombia’s Amazon as an “entity subject of rights”, which means that the rainforest has been granted the same legal rights as a human being. Also, in 2017, Colombia’s Constitutional Court recognized the Atrato River basin as having rights to “protection, conservation, maintenance and restoration.”

New Zealand: Last year, the New Zealand Parliament passed legislation declaring that the Whanganui River catchment (Te Awa Tupua) has “all the rights, powers, duties and liabilities of a legal person”, as part of a political settlement with the Māori.

India: The Uttarakhand High Court ruled that the Ganges and Yamuna Rivers, both sacred in the Hindu religion, have the same legal rights as a person.

This push for nature’s rights is happening in many places around the world – Australia, Nepal, Nigeria, and even the U.S. Ecuador’s constitution grants rights to nature, and states that nature “has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution.”

Taking this perhaps a step further includes recognizing the rights of future generations. Which brings us back to Colombia, where 25 young people have sued the government for that very recognition, claiming, amongst other things, that climate change threatens their rights to health, food, water and a thriving environment.

The recent ruling in Colombia to stem deforestation found that “Without a healthy environment, subjects of law and living beings in general will not be able to survive, let alone safeguard those rights for our children or for future generations.”


[Eastern Sierras, California. Photo: Suzanne York]

[Eastern Sierras, California. Photo: Suzanne York]

Humanity’s thinking needs to evolve to the point that we understand we are part of the web of life, and dependent upon the web of life.

The Earth Day events that take place this weekend will show how we can work together to save the environment. But these efforts are mostly ‘band-aids’ in the bigger scheme of things. The planet is practically on life-support and yet we continue to plunder it for resources to sustain our consumptive lifestyles.

So while one main solution lies in recognizing rights of nature, it must also be linked to human rights overall and the rights of a person to maintain a healthy life – one free of poverty, inequity and a degraded environment.

Congo: Ground Zero

The impact of unsustainable resource use is all around us, from climate change to pollution to species extinction. One country in particular – the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – is representative of the need to respect and link rights of nature and human rights. In fact it could be called ground zero, given the country’s problems.

Virunga National Park, in eastern DRC, is home to some of the greatest biodiversity in the world, including the endangered mountain gorilla. It is also a place of extreme poverty, and inequity and gender-based violence. Realistically, rights of nature is nowhere near the environmental agenda. Every day is a battle for protecting nature and helping the people who live by the park. Just last week, six park rangers were killed in an ambush by a local militia group that plunders the park for its precious and valuable natural resources.


[Mountain gorilla, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda. Photo: Suzanne York]

[Mountain gorilla, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda. Photo: Suzanne York]

In an interview with BBC News, Park Warden Emmanuel de Merode said the killings were driven by trafficking of Virunga’s natural resources, which is estimated to bring in $170 million in revenue last year, with militias’ drawing approximately $47 million. It’s a big business in a vast area of magnificent biodiversity, much of it driven by local and global markets and of course, poverty. Forests are chopped down for firewood and charcoal, animals poached for international buyers or bushmeat, and land cleared for agriculture to feed a growing population.

A few years ago the park fought off oil developers that would’ve destroyed much of the environment. Next door in Uganda though, oil and mining projects are taking place in some of the national parks. It’s the same the world over – even the U.S. opens public lands to extractive industries. Nature is plundered and we’re all paying a high price.

Moving Past Business as Usual

The concept of rights of nature, much of it grounded in indigenous cultures and practices, won’t change things overnight, especially in places like the DRC. But it is a path forward to real change in how humans interact with the planet. Most importantly, it needs to be linked with human rights initiatives that bring people out of poverty and help them meet their needs for health, education and jobs. In other words, it needs to be a people-centric and planet-centric approach at the same time.

It’s encouraging to see more countries recognize nature’s rights. If you want to support something that is a game-changer for the environment, this is it. And it will help people too. Real change calls for a win-win strategy, one that also benefits people and protects nature.


Suzanne York is Director of Transition Earth.

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