What if nature had legal rights?

Rights of Nature movement gathering momentum around the world; subject of ASU Project Humanities event

View of the Amazon rainforest and river

Imagine if the Amazon River had legal representation. Or if the Colorado River had a bill of rights. Or if an ecosystem was granted personhood. 

These are examples of the Rights of Nature movement, a concept that has been deeply rooted in Indigenous knowledge for millennia and is now gaining traction globally.

The idea: Nature and ecosystems should no longer be regarded as property that can be owned but as entities that have a legal and inalienable right to exist, flourish and defend themselves in courts of law as “rights-bearing entities.”

One example: In 2018, the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, an Indigenous people in Minnesota, recognized the rights of Manoomin (wild rice) to “exist, flourish, regenerate and evolve.” The action, taken in tribal court, was in response to a corporation wanting to use 5 billion gallons of water for the construction of an oil pipeline.

Earlier this year, a court in India declared that the “natural world” should have legal rights on par with humans. Justice Sundarim Srimathy wrote in the opinion that Mother Nature should be granted “all corresponding rights, duties and liabilities of a living person. … The past generations have handed over the ‘Mother Earth’ to us in its pristine glory, and we are morally bound to hand over the same Mother Earth to the next generation.”

These are not isolated examples. Rights of nature laws have been established in more than 30 Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities across the United States, and rights of nature legislation, as well as judicial rulings and constitutional amendments, have been adopted in 24 countries around the world, including Canada, Mexico, New Zealand, Colombia and Ecuador.

Why are these rights needed? How exactly does an ecosystem, a river, even a food source, acquire legal rights? And what protections could these rights create? 

Those and other questions were addressed Wednesday during a panel discussion put on by Arizona State University’s Project Humanities in the Labriola National American Indian Data Center on the second floor of Hayden Library on the Tempe campus.

“How often do we think about anything beyond ourselves?” asked panel moderator Alycia de Mesa, Project Humanities’ associate director and a senior Global Futures scholar in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory. “If you happen to have come from an Indigenous culture, you probably have thought about it a lot, but if you have not come from an Indigenous culture, there’s a good chance that you have not thought about it very much in terms of what is life, what are rights, who speaks for non-humans altogether?”

Chinonso Anozie, a visiting assistant professor at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, said rights of nature are needed because current environmental laws do not sufficiently protect the environment. 

“Let's say, for example, in a community, one particular organization or corporate body is polluting the water,” Anozie said. “And the people who are supposed to bring an action in court are not interested. What should we do? Water does not have any rights of standing before the courts of law. 

“What the Supreme Court has said is for you to be able to challenge any action, you need legal standing, and that legal standing is the right to show that there’s an injury. … If water does not have any legal person (standing up for it), it’s impossible to have any legal standing in a court of law. So granting a body of water or an ecosystem rights makes it possible for that body of water to be able to sue and get redress from the courts.” 

It might sound strange to, say, give wild rice rights, but there would be greater acceptance of that concept if the notion of personhood was expanded, argued Joni Adamson, President’s Professor of English and environmental humanities at ASU.

“What is a person?” Adamson said. “For many peoples around the world, persons are everything. Persons are animals, persons are trees, persons are grasses. Persons are microorganisms. Everything that works in relationship to everything else is considered a person. The concept of legal personhood is one thing, but the Rights of Nature movement has made the concept of personhood a much broader concept.”

Melissa Nelsona member of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa Band of Indians and a professor of Indigenous sustainability in ASU’s School of Sustainability, said Indigenous tribes are using the movement in tribal courts to protect bodies of water, food, even a sacred mountain. On July 6, the Ponca Tribe in Oklahoma unanimously adopted a statute recognizing the immutable rights of the Arkansas River and South Fork River, which flow through their territory.

“As we often say, the Bureau of Reclamation may have legal authority, but those are spiritually occupied lands and our ancestors have authority there,” Nelson said. 

But Anozie said he’s skeptical of how Rights of Nature rulings might hold up in state and federal courts. He noted that in 2019, voters in Toledo, Ohio, passed the "Lake Erie Bill of Rights" law during a special election. But the law, which would have elevated the rights of the community and its natural environment over rights claimed by corporations, was struck down by a federal judge in 2020.

“In the United States, you see this growing advocacy for advancing the rights to nature or giving legal personhood to bodies of water, but it has been met with a lot of resistance,” Anozie said. “Because this is Western civilization, most people do not really believe that or do not understand why it’s necessary for us to have that.

“And with the legislative gridlock in Congress, it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than to have a constitutional amendment granting the rights of nature. That’s how hard it is.” 

There’s another legal quandary, Anozie said. Would Rights of Nature legislation control trees, food sources or water on private lands? 

“There are disparities, so it’s going to be a hard thing to do going forward,” he said. “But I take faith in the environmental justice movement. I believe there’s light at the end of the tunnel and we should keep pushing.”

In Nelson's mind, it's simple: Nature has to be protected from those who are supposeed to protect it.

"We wouldn't have the need for a Rights of Nature movement if humans were more responsible," she said. "Beause it's really humans who are creating the havoc with the extraction mentality that is destroying the natural world."

Top photo: Aerial view of the Amazon rainforest, near Manaus, the capital of the Brazilian state of Amazonas. Photo by Neil Palmer (CIAT), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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