Ireland could become the first country in the EU to enshrine the “Rights of Nature” into its national constitution.
The Joint Committee on Environment and Climate Action has recommended that the Irish government conduct a referendum on protecting biodiversity. This intiative would see nature bestowed with rights comparable to those of people. The recommendation came in response to a report from the Irish Citizens’ Assembly on biodiversity loss.
The Rights of Nature movement has grown in recent years. It seeks to have elements of nature, such as trees, mountains, and rivers, recognized as entities with rights to exist and flourish, to be restored, and to be regenerated and respected. It also recognizes the right of any person, or organization, to defend, protect, and enforce those rights on behalf of nature.
The growing movement is global: New Zealand has granted “Legal Personhood” to the Whanganui River. Countries in South America have made similar declarations, and the native American movement in the United States has led the way in lobbying the US government to do the same.
In Ireland, the Center for Democratic and Environmental Rights appeared before the Joint Committee in October to testify about why the rights of nature needed to be recognized. The team was supported by Dr. Peter Doran of the Queen’s University Belfast School of Law. Executive director Mari Margil welcomed the committee’s recommendation. “We congratulate chairperson Brian Leddin and the Joint Committee for its work and for taking this important step forward toward enshrining the rights of nature within Ireland’s constitution,” she said. “Further, we look forward to the government and parliament’s next steps to protect the rights of nature and we offer whatever assistance we can in this process.” Senior Counsel Thomas Linzey added that direct citizen involvement was “essential” to protect the natural environment and the rights of nature.
If the Irish parliament does put forward a national referendum on the rights of nature, and it is approved by the people, Ireland would be the first country within the European Union to enshrine such a right within a national constitution.
Rather than incorporate a rights of nature doctrine in its constitution, New Zealand has taken a more enforceable and direct approach by explicitly granting “Legal Personhood” to three environmental features: (1) Te Urewera National Park, (2) the Whanganui River, and (3) Mt. Taranaki. Combining traditional indigenous knowledge of the Maori people, who are thought to have landed in New Zealand around the 13th century, with the modern legal system, New Zealand became one of the first countries in the world to give a mountain, river, and national park “Legal personhood” status.
In Ecuador, article 71 of the 2008 Constitution states that nature “has the right to integral respect for its existence, and for the maintenance and regeneration of its life cycles, structure, functions and evolutionary processes”. In practice, that means that all persons, communities, peoples, and nations can demand that Ecuadorian authorities enforce the rights of nature. One of those rights, according to article 72, is the right to be restored.
Ecuador’s approach to nature’s rights, which was soon emulated in Bolivia, was notable in two ways. First, it grants nature positive rights – that is, rights to something specific (restoration, regeneration, respect). It also resolves the issue of legal standing in the most comprehensive way possible: by granting it to everyone. In Ecuador, anyone – regardless of their relationship to a particular slice of land – can go to court to protect it.
In the US, Chase Iron Eyes of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe has said, “It is clear that American or Western courts lack a place to intellectually or spiritually comprehend the sacred relationship between the original peoples of this hemisphere and the waters, the sacred sites, and the lands.”
In many ways, Rights of Nature frameworks marry a fundamentally indigenous worldview with a Western legal structure. Inspired by Wisconsin’s Ho-Chunk Nation, the first US tribe to advance an amendment to its tribal constitution to include Rights of Nature, many others are taking the same steps. Together, Native American tribes are also in a unique position to advance the Rights of Nature for the US nation as a whole.
“Rights of Nature” is a growing movement from every culture, background, and walk of life in the world. However, this mostly unreported movement needs greater publicity and my humble blog site is honored to help in this essential process.