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Can We Save the Environment and Our Communities By Giving Nature Legal Rights?

From rural Pennsylvania to South America, a global alliance is promoting the idea that ecosystems have intrinsic rights.

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The next major boost for the rights of nature idea came in April 2010, when Bolivian president Evo Morales hosted the “The World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth” in the city of Cochabamba. The summit was intended as a response to the formal United Nations-sponsored climate negotiations that had just suffered a meltdown in Copenhagen. The idea was to give civil society groups an opportunity to propose their own solutions for grappling with the climate crisis. The result was the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth.

Drafted in part by Cormac Cullinan, the declaration is modeled on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It begins ambitiously – “We, the peoples and nations of Earth” – and goes on to assert that “the rights of each being are limited by the rights of other beings and any conflict between their rights must be resolved in a way that maintains the integrity, balance and health of Mother Earth.” On April 22, Earth Day, the 35,000 people attending the Cochabamba summit adopted the declaration as a kind of clarion call for making a stronger commitment to the natural world.

Several weeks later, Pablo Solon, Bolivia’s UN ambassador, submitted the text of the declaration to the General Assembly, the first step toward getting the international body to adopt it.

Ideas matter. The thought-provoking language in the rights of nature laws has helped to re-frame the debate about how to balance the needs of 7 billion humans against the needs of the rest of the planet’s living communities. At the most recent UN climate summits – in  Cancun in 2010 and in Durban last December – members of the  Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature promoted the idea as an intellectual counterweight to the market-driven approaches (like cap and trade and carbon trading) that have dominated the UN process. At least at the margins, the conversation about our relationship to nature is changing.

Incorporating the rights of nature concept into policy has been a different matter.

Natalia Greene says that 2009, after approval of the new Ecuadorian constitution, was “a bad year.” The Ecuadorian Congress failed to pass a law that was to give judges guidance on how to implement Article 71. Meanwhile, the Congress approved a new mining law that, Greene says, put the interests of mining corporations above the rights of ecosystems. And President Correa, eager to tap into the country’s fossil fuel resources, has made no secret of his disapproval of Article 71.

So far there has been only one court case in Ecuador testing the rights of nature. Last March, a judge ruled that the provincial government of Loja violated the rights of the Vilcabamba River during a road-widening project that dumped rocks and other fill into the river. Construction crews have since stopped the dumping, but the already-impacted sections have not been restored. “We aren’t so happy with the outcome,” Green says. “However, we do have a case that has given a lot of precedent.” Her organization is looking for other test cases to bring in front of judges in 2012.

The situation in Bolivia is equally conflicted. In April 2011, the Bolivian Parliament passed a Law of Mother Earth, but the ministry that is supposed to implement the law has not been established. Meanwhile, Bolivia’s mining and gas industries continue to churn along, and last year the Morales government got in a bruising fight over a road project that critics complained was designed to speed up resource extraction. Pablo Solon, one of the most high profile rights of nature advocates, resigned his post as ambassador to the UN. Solon – a consummate diplomat – did not say he was quitting in frustration, but the reason for his departure seemed clear: He could not lobby for the rights of nature at the UN while his country was charging ahead with fossil fuel extraction. “There must be coherence between what we do and what we say,” Solon wrote in a September 2011 letter to Morales.

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