CELDF is pioneering the work for rights of ecosystems – or the “rights of nature” – working with communities and states across the U.S., and in countries around the world, to develop rights-based legal frameworks to protect the environment.
CELDF has assisted communities in the U.S. and the country of Ecuador to establish the first rights of nature laws in the world. Today, CELDF is working in the U.S., Nepal, India, and other countries to advance the rights of nature.
A true "right of the environment" does exist.— Pope Francis, September, 2015
Rights of nature laws recognize the inalienable and fundamental rights of natural communities and ecosystems to exist, thrive, regenerate, and evolve. This includes the rights of nature to pure water, clean air, and a healthy environment. Activities that would interfere with or violate these rights would be prohibited.
Further, right of nature laws empower nature to enforce and defend its own rights, and empower people and their governments to enforce and defend these rights. As well, these laws require that in the event of harm, nature be fully restored.
Learn more about the rights of nature below – why it’s needed, what it is, and how it’s advancing around the world; how the rights of nature is being defended and enforced; review our FAQs; and find out how you can become involved.
What is the rights of nature, and why do we need it?
Rachel Carson said that a healthy environment is “one of the basic human rights.”
Through our work, CELDF has learned that to secure the human right to a healthy environment, we must also secure the rights of the environment – the rights of nature – itself.
Expanding the existing body of legal rights to include nature means placing the highest societal value and legal protection on nature – a concept that is becoming increasingly understood as necessary.
Today, legal systems around the world treat nature as “property” under the law – and thus “right-less.” Treated as property, environmental laws regulate the use of nature, such that these laws legalize environmental harm. Under this legal framework, across the globe, ecosystems and species are facing collapse.
A fundamentally different relationship between humankind and nature is necessary, one that recognizes our dependence on nature and need to live in harmony with the natural world. This requires providing the highest legal protection, and thus placing the highest societal value, on nature and sustainability – by recognizing rights of both humankind and nature to health and well-being.
CELDF has developed rights of nature laws for communities and countries. These laws prohibit human activities that would interfere with the rights of ecosystems and natural communities to exist, flourish, regenerate, and evolve. Further, these laws transform the status of ecosystems and natural communities from being regarded as property to being rights-bearing entities.
Existing Environmental Laws Treat Nature as Property
By most every measure, the environment today is in worse shape than when the major U.S. environmental laws were adopted over forty years ago. Since then, countries around the world have sought to replicate these laws. Yet, species decline worldwide is increasing exponentially, deforestation continues around the world, ocean acidification is rapidly advancing, and global warming is far more accelerated than previously believed.
Environmental laws – including the federal Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and similar state laws – legalize environmental harm by regulating how much pollution or destruction of nature can occur under law. Rather than preventing pollution and environmental destruction, our environmental laws codify it.
In the U.S., for example, under the Clean Water Act and the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, coal corporations are authorized to blow the tops off mountains. Under state oil and gas laws, corporations are authorized to frack, mine, and drill. Under these laws, ecosystems and species are facing collapse.
In the U.S., title to property carries with it the legal authority to destroy the natural communities and ecosystems that depend upon that property for survival. In fact, federal environmental laws were passed under the authority of Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution, which grants exclusive authority over “interstate commerce” to Congress.
Treating nature as commerce has meant that all existing environmental law frameworks in the U.S. are anchored in the concept of nature as a commodity, as an item of property. This legal framework is mirrored around the world.
Moving from a Property to a Rights-Based Framework to Protect Nature
CELDF has assisted communities in the U.S., as well as the country of Ecuador, to develop the first rights of nature laws. These laws change the status of natural communities and ecosystems from being regarded as property under the law to being recognized as rights-bearing entities.
These laws recognize that natural communities and ecosystems possess an inalienable and fundamental right to exist and flourish, and that people possess the legal authority to enforce those rights on behalf of nature. In addition, they require the governments to remedy violations of ecosystem rights.
In essence, these laws represent changes to the status of property law in the U.S., eliminating the authority of a property owner to interfere with the functioning of ecosystems and natural communities that exist and depend upon that property for their existence and flourishing. They do not stop development; rather they stop development and use of property that interferes with the existence and vitality of those ecosystems.
Enforcing and Defending the Rights of Nature
The first cases enforcing and defending the rights of nature have been brought in the U.S. and Ecuador.
In Ecuador, Richard Frederick Wheeler and Eleanor Geer Huddle brought a lawsuit in the name of the Vilcabamba River. The river was a plaintiff in the case, seeking to enforce its own constitutional rights to exist and thrive. The healthy functioning and flow of the river was being impacted by a government road-widening construction project.
In 2011, the Provincial Justice Court of Loja ruled in favor of the Vilcabamba River – marking the first time since the 2008 promulgation of the rights of nature provisions in the Ecuador Constitution that a court upheld the constitutional rights of nature.
In the United States, in November 2014, CELDF filed the first motion to intervene in a lawsuit by an ecosystem. The ecosystem – the Little Mahoning Watershed in Grant Township, Indiana County, Pennsylvania – sought to defend its own legal rights to exist and flourish.
The rights of nature were secured in law by Grant Township in June 2014. The Township enacted a CELDF-drafted Community Bill of Rights ordinance, establishing the rights of human and natural communities to water and a healthy environment – including the rights of ecosystems to exist and flourish – and banning frack wastewater injection wells as a violation of those rights.
The watershed filed a motion to intervene in the Pennsylvania General Energy Company (PGE) v. Grant Township lawsuit, in which PGE is suing Grant Township to overturn the Bill of Rights. PGE claims that the Bill of Rights violates the constitutional “right” of the corporation to inject frack wastewater in the township.
In August 2015, CELDF also filed a motion to intervene in the name of the Crystal Spring Ecosystem in Highland Township, Elk County, Pennsylvania. Rights of the ecosystem were secured in law by Highland Township in January 2013. The ecosystem filed a motion to intervene in Seneca Resources Corporation vs. Highland Township, a lawsuit filed against the community, in which Seneca – a major fracking company – is suing Highland Township to overturn the Bill of Rights. Seneca claims that the Bill of Rights violates the constitutional “right” of the corporation to inject frack wastewater in the Township.
Advancing the Rights of Nature Around the World
CELDF is partnering with organizations in Australia, Colombia, Cameroon, India, Nepal, Canada, and other countries to develop rights of nature frameworks. Learn more at our International Law Center. Further, CELDF is a founding member of the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature, which hosted the world’s first Rights of Nature Tribunal in Quito, Ecuador, in January 2014.
CELDF is working with communities in the United States and in countries around the world on grassroots organizing, public education and outreach, research, and legislative drafting – assisting people, NGOs, elected representatives, and government officials to craft and adopt new laws that change the status of natural communities and ecosystems from being regarded as property under the law to being recognized as rights-bearing entities.
Through this work, CELDF has assisted more than three dozen communities in the U.S., and assisted the Constituent Assembly of Ecuador, to put in place a new paradigm to protect nature – a paradigm based on rights.
Rights of Nature: Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
What do we mean when we say that nature has rights?
Under the current system of law in almost every country, nature is considered to be property, a treatment which confers upon the property owner the right to destroy ecosystems and nature on that property. When we talk about the “rights of nature,” it means recognizing that ecosystems and natural communities are not merely property that can be owned, but are entities that have an independent and inalienable right to exist and flourish. Laws recognizing the rights of nature thus change the status of natural communities and ecosystems to being recognized as rights-bearing entities with rights that can be enforced by people, governments, and communities.
Why do we need to adopt new legal structures recognizing rights of nature?
By most every measure, the environment today is in worse shape than when the major U.S. environmental laws were adopted over forty years ago. Since then, countries around the world have sought to replicate these laws. Yet, species continue to precipitously decline, global warming is far more accelerated than previously believed, deforestation continues around the world, and overfishing in the world’s oceans has pushed many fisheries to collapse.
These laws – including the federal Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and similar state laws – legalize environmental harms by regulating how much pollution or destruction of nature can occur under law. Rather than preventing pollution and environmental destruction, these laws, instead, allow and permit it. In addition, under commonly understood terms of preemption, once these activities are legalized by federal or state governments, local governments are prohibited from banning them.
Laws recognizing rights for nature begin with a different premise – that ecosystems and natural communities have the right to exist and flourish, and people, communities and governments have the authority to defend those rights on behalf of those ecosystems and communities.
Where have laws recognizing the rights of nature been adopted?
CELDF has assisted the first communities in the U.S. as well as Ecuador to develop the first rights of nature law. The first laws establishing legal structures which recognized the rights of nature were adopted by local municipalities in the United States beginning in 2006 with Tamaqua Borough, Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania. Since then, more than three dozen communities in the U.S. have adopted local laws that recognize the rights of nature. In November of 2010, the City of Pittsburgh, in western Pennsylvania, became the first major municipality in the U.S. to recognize rights for nature.
In September 2008, Ecuador became the first country in the world to recognize rights for nature in its constitution. Bolivia has also established rights of nature laws.
What rights do those laws recognize?
The earliest rights of nature laws recognized the right for ecosystems to “exist and flourish.” Others, including the Ecuadorian constitutional provisions promulgated in 2008, recognize the right for nature to exist, persist, evolve, and regenerate. Those laws also recognize the right of any person or organization to defend, protect, and enforce those rights; and for payment of recovered damages to government to provide for the restoration of those ecosystems.
Doesn’t recognizing rights of nature just add an additional layer of regulation?
No. Current environmental regulatory structures are mostly about “permitting” certain harms to occur – acting more to legalize the activities of corporations and other business entities than to protect our natural and human communities. Laws recognizing the rights of nature empower communities to reject governmental actions which permit unwanted and damaging development to occur – by enabling communities to assert the rights of those ecosystems that would otherwise be destroyed.
Although people have been talking about “sustainable development” for decades, very little has been done to change the structure of law to actually achieve that goal. Laws recognizing the rights of nature finally codify the concept of sustainable development – disallowing those activities that would interfere with the functioning of those natural systems that support human and natural life.
What happens when the rights of nature and human rights conflict?
The same thing that happens when different human rights conflict – a court weighs the harms to the interests, and then decides how to balance them. Given that ecosystems and nature provide a life support system for humans, their interests must, at times, override other rights and interests. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have a planet to inhabit that would support our continued existence. Of course, humans are an integral part of nature as well, which means that human needs must also be considered when the rights and interests of ecosystems come into conflict with those of humans.
Doesn’t this mean that rocks must be given lawyers?
No, but what it does mean is that the rights of ecosystems and natural communities are enforceable independently of the rights of people who use them. That means that people within a community could step “into the shoes” of a mountain, stream, or forest ecosystem, and advocate for the rights of those natural communities. It calls for a system of jurisprudence in which those ecosystems are actually “seen” in court, and that assesses damages according to the costs of restoring the ecosystem to its pre-damaged state.
What is the Universal Declaration on the Rights of Mother Earth?
In April 2010, Bolivia hosted the Peoples Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth. At the conference, CELDF assisted in drafting the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth. Modeled on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Declaration has been forwarded to the United Nations for consideration by the U.N. General Assembly. On April 20, 2011, the General Assembly hosted an Interactive Dialogue entitled “Ways to promote a holistic approach to sustainable development in harmony with nature.” The Universal Declaration of the Rights of Nature was presented during the session.
To learn more about the rights of nature, and for advice and counsel, contact us at email@example.com.