Rights of Nature

International Center for the Rights of Nature


CELDF is spearheading the advancement of Rights of Nature laws and policies around the world through the International Center for the Rights of Nature.

As a non-profit, non-governmental organization, we partner with civil society organizations, indigenous peoples, communities, and governments – providing legal, organizing, and education support. Our Center’s services include legislative and policy drafting, legal research, public engagement, and trainings.

Communities in the United States and the country of Ecuador have worked with CELDF to establish the first Rights of Nature laws in the world. Today, we are working in India, Nepal, Australia, Cameroon, Colombia, the United States, and other countries on the Rights of Nature.

Why Rights?

Environmental degradation is advancing around the world. The United Nations has warned that we are heading toward “major planetary catastrophe.”  There is a growing recognition that we must fundamentally change the relationship between humankind and nature.

Making this fundamental shift means recognizing our dependence on nature and respecting our need to live in harmony with the natural world.  This means securing the highest legal protection on nature and sustainability. It means placing the highest societal value on ecosystems and a healthy planet.  Recognizing rights of both humankind and nature to health and well-being helps achieve those legal protections and societal values.

Human Rights are not Enough

Many nations have expanded their body of legal rights to recognize a human right to a healthy environment, including Spain, France, Portugal, Greece, and Finland. However, as global warming accelerates and ecosystems are pushed to collapse, we are finding that the human right to a healthy environment cannot be achieved without securing the highest protections for the natural environment. This means recognizing in law the right of the environment itself to be healthy and thrive.

A true "right of the environment" does exist.
— Pope Francis, September, 2015

Extending Rights to Nature

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 are prohibited.

Conventional environmental laws are based on the legal concept of property – meaning that environmental laws treat nature as property. As such, nature is considered right-less.  Slaves, indigenous peoples, and women were once considered right-less by legal systems around the world.  They were unable to defend their own basic rights to life and well-being.  So today do environmental laws treat nature.

Nature Treated as Property. Photo Credit: Elizabethsalleebauer/RooMGetty/Images

By contrast, Rights of Nature laws prohibit human activities that would interfere with the ability and rights of ecosystems and natural communities to exist and flourish.  These laws transform the status of nature from being regarded as property to being rights-bearing.

In fact, these laws change the status of property law. Rights of Nature laws eliminate the authority of a property owner to interfere with the functioning of ecosystems and natural communities that depend upon that property for their existence. They do not stop development; rather, they stop development and use of property that interferes with the existence and vitality of those ecosystems.

Under Rights of Nature laws:

  •   Nature is empowered to defend and enforce its own rights;
  •   People are empowered to defend and enforce the Rights of Nature; and
  •   Governments are required to implement, defend, and enforce the Rights of Nature.

Nature, Property, and Exploitation

Today, legal systems around the world treat nature as property to be exploited. Having title to property carries with it the legal authority to destroy the natural communities that depend upon that property for survival. Nature is right-less.

Environmental laws legitimize this use of nature by regulating it. These regulations legalize environmental harm.  Environmental laws in the United States – including the federal Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and similar state laws – regulate 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.

Further, in the United States, the few protections we do have for flora and fauna were passed under the authority of the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The Commerce Clause grants exclusive authority over “interstate commerce” to Congress.  Thus nature is treated as a commodity, rather than as entities with the right to exist and thrive.

Ecosystems and species across the globe are facing collapse under this legal framework. By almost every measure, the environment is worse today than when major U.S. environmental laws were adopted over forty years ago. Despite this, countries around the world have sought to replicate U.S. environmental laws. Species decline worldwide is increasing, deforestation is continuing, ocean acidification is advancing, and global warming is accelerating far more than previously believed.

Photo: Global Warming in Guana by Craig ONeal, Flickr Creative Commons

Charting a Rights Course for Nature

Existing environmental legal frameworks anchor the concept of nature as a commodity. Today, communities in the United States, and countries around the world, are working with CELDF to weigh anchor. They are setting course to redefine ecosystems as vibrant, rights-bearing entities. Through Rights of Nature laws and policies, they are recognizing that ecosystems have an independent and inalienable right to exist and flourish. Those rights can be enforced by people, governments, and communities on behalf of nature.  Our partners are leaders with us in Rights of Nature work, acting locally to spearhead global change.

Rights of Nature Going Local

Communities across the United States have worked with CELDF to develop the first Rights of Nature laws in the country. This includes Pittsburgh, PA, which was the first major city to enact a Rights of Nature law. Dozens of communities have adopted similar laws, including Barrington, NH; Athens, OH; and Mountain Lake Park, MD.

Rights of Nature Going Statewide

As the numbers of communities advancing Community Rights – including Rights of Nature – grow, CELDF is assisting them to join together to form statewide Community Rights Networks in several states. We are partnering with the Networks to draft constitutional amendments to establish Community Rights and the Rights of Nature. Today, Colorado, New Hampshire, and Oregon are advancing these constitutional amendments.

Rights of Nature Going Global

CELDF assisted the Ecuador Constituent Assembly to draft Rights of Nature constitutional provisions. Ecuadorians adopted their new constitution by an overwhelming majority, making Ecuador the first country in the world to recognize the Rights of Nature in its Constitution.

In England, CELDF assisted the Green Party of England and Wales to develop a Rights of Nature policy, which was adopted in February 2016.

Today, we are working in India, Nepal, Australia, Camaroon, Colombia, the United States, and other countries on the Rights of Nature.

We also assisted in drafting the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Mother Earth, which was modeled on the U.N. Declaration on Human Rights.  The Declaration has been presented to the U.N. General Assembly for its consideration.

A healthy environment is “one of the basic human rights.”
— Rachel Carson

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. This marked 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.

Grant and Highland Townships, PA

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, PA – sought to defend its own legal rights to exist and flourish.  That case is ongoing.  Similarly, in Highland Township, PA, CELDF is providing legal counsel to the Township to defend its ban on frack wastewater injection wells from a lawsuit brought by an oil and gas company. CELDF is also serving as counsel for a local watershed to defend its rights not to have frack waste injected in the ecosystem.

It’s Time: the Rights of Nature Begins with You

Whether you want to recognize the Rights of Nature in your community or in your country, at the International Center for the Rights of Nature, we can help. Contact us at: rightsofnature@celdf.org.


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Where We Are Working Around the World


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