Giving Nature Legal Rights, Tribunal Puts Environmental Damage on Trial

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Tar sands at Fort McMurrayin Alberta, Canada.

Kris Krug, Flickr

Tar sands at Fort McMurrayin Alberta, Canada.

On December 4 and 5, against the backdrop of the COP21 climate summit now underway in Paris, the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature will hold the third International Rights of Nature Tribunal. It’s a very unusual court, one where the grievances of the natural world against individuals, companies and organizations will be heard.

The Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature argues that the world’s relentless ecological crises cannot be solved unless humans systematically change their approach to nature in both their legal and economic systems. That statement carries weight at the end of a year that has seen ecological disasters of an unprecedented magnitude. In July, intense rainfalls inundated major open-pit coal mines in North Vietnam, causing toxic floods to threaten Halong Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In the same month, untamed fires have burned over 12,000 acres of Indonesian rain forest blazes whose extent is closely linked to irresponsible farming practices. In November, Brazil faced the worst environmental catastrophe in its history, when two mining dams broke, causing a toxic mudslide to endanger the livelihoods of over 100,000 people and the entire ecosystem of the Rio Dolce River.

The Rights of Nature Tribunal is meant to put the spotlight on these types of events. For now, the judgements passed at the Tribunal have no legal value, but they are meant to demonstrate an alternative approach to how the environment is viewed in legally.

“It serves an educational purpose,” explains Osprey Orielle Lake, a judge at the tribunal and co-founder of the Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network. “We want to present these ideas on a world stage by demonstrating the application of the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth, which was adopted in 2010.”

The agenda for this year’s tribunal is diverse. The tribunal will examine what it calls “climate crimes” against nature, including the implications of the agro-food industry and genetically modified organisms (or GMOs), the tar sands in Canada, mega dams in Brazil, oil drilling in the Ecuadorian rain forest and international ocean management.

Many of those involved in the Tribunal want to fundamentally alter how nature is perceived in legal terms. They want to give legal standing to natural phenomenon and to be able to defend their rights in court.

“We need to stop treating nature solely as property in terms of the law and instead should attribute legal rights to trees, rivers, animals and whole ecosystems,” says Robin Milam, a social entrepreneur and the leader of a global grass-roots campaign, called Rights of Mother Earth. In practice, this would allow advocates to represent natural phenomenon in the same way that parents can speak on behalf of their children in court.

The idea is not as far-fetched as it might seem at first. One hundred years ago, it was unthinkable to attribute legal rights to completely invisible, intangible and artificial entities such as corporations, which also cannot speak for themselves. Today, hardly any aspect of our lives is not touched upon by that legal invention.

Law is not set in stone. In the first ever essay ever written on the topic in 1974, Christopher Stone, a professor at the University of Southern California, wrote that in reality law “follows the moral development of mankind,” and that every extension of rights in the past, seemed “unthinkable” at first. This applied to children’s rights, women’s rights, black people’s rights and now to nature’s rights.

As an ethical tribunal, the Rights of Nature Tribunal continues a long tradition of forums, that have sought to address issues falling outside the scope of existing legal systems. It is directly inspired by the Russell Tribunal, also known as the International War Crimes Tribunal, which was organized by the British and French philosophers, Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre in the 1960s to investigate American foreign policy and military intervention in Vietnam.

The Nature Tribunal serves as a platform for an idea that has already been manifesting itself in laws across the world in recent years. In 2008, Ecuador recognized the ‘Rights of Mother Earth’ in its constitution and in 2011, Bolivia passed an unprecedented ‘Law of Mother Nature’, which grants nature equal rights to humans. In 2012, the Whanganui River in New Zealand was recognized as a legal entity, setting a global precedent.

The trend is also appearing at a very local level, with communities beginning to use legal rights of nature as a tool to protect their livelihoods. “In the USA, a multitude of local communities have passed ordinances which recognize rights of nature,” says Linda Sheehan, a prosecutor at the tribunal and executive director of the Earth Law Center.

“People use the rights of nature to protect their area from polluting economic activities, such as fracking of shale gas in Mora County, New Mexico or Baldwin, Pennsylvania,” she says.

Those behind the Tribunal say they are not anti-development, but that the movement promotes a different type of economic development.

“We need to reformulate the rules of our economic activities and we need to start paying the real price for the products we use,” says Osprey Lake. Her words echo the findings of a UN-sponsored report conducted in 2013, which shows that hardly any industrial sector would be profitable if its true environmental costs were internalized.

“Determining the true cost of business, including environmental degradation, would incentivize more sustainable businesses to thrive. A must if we are serious about living within the natural boundaries of the earth. This is what the members of the Global Alliance for Nature’s Rights work for,” Lake says.

*Correction (Dec 8th, 2015): We misspelled Robin Milam as ‘Robin McMillan’. This has been corrected.

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