Rights of Nature Timeline

advancing Legal Rights of Nature: Timeline

Expanding the body of legal rights to include nature has been an idea brewing for generations. Indeed, more than a century ago, environmentalist John Muir wrote that we must respect “the rights of all the rest of creation.” In 2015, Pope Francis stated that, “A true ‘right of the environment’ does exist…”

Below are key moments in the development of the movement for the Rights of Nature:

  • In 1972, the Southern California Law Review published law professor Christopher Stone’s seminal article, “Should trees have standing – toward legal rights for natural objects.” Stone described how under the existing structure of law, nature was considered right-less, having no legally recognized rights to defend and enforce.
  • In 1989, Professor Roderick Nash, published The Rights of Nature: A History of Environmental Ethics. In it he explains how, throughout history, the right-less – slaves, women, others – have struggled to expand the body of legal rights to include themselves. Nash provides a context for how and why the body of rights is moving in the direction of expanding to include nature.
  • In 2001, Thomas Berry published The Origin, Differentiation and Role of Rights in which he described how all members of the Earth community possess inherent rights.
  • In 2003, Wild Law: A Manifesto for Earth Justice, was published. Authored by South African attorney Cormac Cullinan, with Berry, he opens up a new front on the Rights of Nature – adding a significant spiritual and moral element to the legal and historic discussion begun by Stone and Nash.
  • In 2006, Tamaqua Borough, Pennsylvania, in the U.S., banned the dumping of toxic sewage sludge as a violation of the Rights of Nature. Tamaqua is the very first place in the world to recognize the Rights of Nature in law. Since 2006, dozens of communities in ten states in the U.S. have enacted Rights of Nature laws.
  • In 2008, Ecuador became the first country in the world to recognize the Rights of Nature in its national constitution. In 2011, the first Rights of Nature court decision was issued in the Vilcabamba River case in Ecuador, upholding the Rights of Nature constitutional provisions.
  • In 2009, the UN General Assembly proclaimed “International Mother Earth Day.”
  • In 2010, Bolivia held the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, where the Universal Declaration on the Rights of Mother Earth was issued. It has been submitted to the U.N. for consideration.
  • In 2010, the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature was formed. In 2014, the Global Alliance sponsored the first Rights of Nature Tribunal in Ecuador. Subsequent tribunals have now been held.
  • In 2010, Bolivia’s Legislative Assembly passed the Law of the Rights of Mother Earth.
  • In 2010, Pittsburgh became the first large U.S. city to enact a local law recognizing the rights of nature. The ordinance also rejected state preemption of local regulations and bans on fossil fuel industry projects by instituting a ban on the extraction of combustible (“natural”) gas within the city. The measure was enacted by a unanimous 9-0 vote of the city council, following strong community organizing in support of the measure.
  • In 2011, a campaign was launched in Nepal to advance the Rights of Nature. Today, Members of Parliament are considering a Rights of Nature constitutional amendment.
  • In 2012, a campaign was launched in India by Ganga Action Parivar and the Global Interfaith WASH Alliance-India to recognize rights of the Ganga River through national legislation. The campaign slogan is “Ganga’s Rights are Our Rights.” The National Ganga River Rights Act was drafted.
  • In 2012, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature adopted a policy to incorporate the Rights of Nature in its decision-making processes.
  • In 2013, the campaign for the European Citizen’s Initiative for the Rights of Nature was launched. The initiative process allows citizens to present proposals to the European Union government for consideration.
  • In 2014, the first Rights of Nature state constitutional amendment was proposed in Colorado.
  • In 2014, the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature sponsored an International Gathering on Rights of Nature and held a Rights of Nature Tribunal in Quito, Ecuador.
  • In 2014, the New Zealand Parliament passed the Te Urewera Act, finalizing a settlement between the Tūhoe people and the government. The Act recognizes the Te Urewera – a former national park, of more than 2,000 square kilometers – as having “legal recognition in its own right.”
  • In 2015, Sweden’s Riksdag considered a motion to create a commission to prepare a proposal on how the Rights of Nature can be incorporated into Swedish law.
  • In 2015, Pope Francis, in calling for a new era of environmental protection at the U.N., declared, “A true ‘right of the environment’ does exist…”
  • In 2016, the Green Party of England and Wales adopted a Rights of Nature policy platform. The Greens in Scotland have taken similar steps.
  • In 2016, the Ho-Chunk Nation took a first vote for a Rights of Nature tribal constitutional amendment, the first tribal nation in the U.S. to do so.
  • In 2016, Colombia’s Constitutional Court ruled that the Rio Atrato possesses rights to “protection, conservation, maintenance, and restoration,” and established joint guardianship for the river shared by indigenous people and the national government.
  • In 2016, the Grizzly Treaty, a document signed by more than 200 U.S. and Canadian tribal nations recognized the grizzly bear’s right to exist in a healthy ecosystem.
  • In 2017, Mexico City incorporated language into the city constitution which requires a law to be passed which would “recognize and regulate the broader protection of the rights of nature formed by all its ecosystems and species as a collective entity subject to rights.”
  • In 2017, the New Zealand Parliament finalized the Te Awa Tupua Act, granting the Whanganui River legal status as an ecosystem.
  • In 2017, the High Court of Uttarakhand in India issued rulings recognizing the Ganga and Yamuna Rivers, glaciers, and other ecosystems as legal persons with certain rights.
  • Organizers with the Ohio Community Rights Network submit language for state constitutional change. 
  • In 2017, Lafayette, Colorado, in the U.S., enacted the first Climate Bill of Rights, recognizing rights of humans and nature to a healthy climate, and banning fossil fuel extraction as a violation of those rights.
  • In 2017, Colorado River v. State of Colorado was filed in U.S. federal court. In this first-in-the-nation lawsuit, an ecosystem sought recognition of its legal rights.
  • In 2017, the Municipality of Bonito, in the State of Pernambuco in Brazil, enacted a rights of nature law, securing rights to “exist, thrive, and evolve.”
  • In 2017, the Ponca Nation of Oklahoma adopted a customary law recognizing the rights of nature.
  • In 2017, the Municipality of Bonito, in the State of Pernambuco in Brazil, enacted a rights of nature law, securing rights to “exist, thrive, and evolve.”
  • In 2018, the Colombian Supreme Court recognized the Colombian Amazon as a “subject of rights.”
  • In 2018 112 legislators in New Hampshire voted in favor of advancing state constitutional amendment to voters.
  • In 2018, in Colombia, the Administrative Court of Boyacá recognized the Páramo in Pisba, a high Andean ecosystem facing significant mining, as a “subject of rights.”
  • In 2018, the Municipality of Paudalho, in the State of Pernambuco in Brazil, enacted a rights of nature law.
  • In 2018, the White Earth band of the Chippewa Nation adopted the “Rights of the Manoomin” law securing legal rights of manoomin, or wild rice, a traditional staple crop of the Anishinaabe people. This is the first law to secure legal rights of a particular plant species.  Rights of Manoomin was also adopted by the 1855 Treaty Authority.
  • In 2019, the National Lawyers Guild in the United States amended the organization’s constitution to include the rights of nature, stating “human rights and the rights of ecosystems shall be regarded as more sacred than property interests….”
  • In 2019, Toledo, Ohio, residents adopted the Lake Erie Bill of Rights, following three years of fighting for the right to vote on the measure. It is the first law in the U.S. to secure legal rights of a specific ecosystem.
  • In 2019, Uganda enacted the National Environmental Act of 2019 in which nature is recognized as having “the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution.”
  • In 2019, residents of Exeter, New Hampshire, in the U.S., enacted a law securing the rights of nature, including the right to “a stable and healthy climate system.”
  • In 2019, residents of Nottingham, New Hampshire, in the U.S., enacted a law securing the rights of nature, including the right to be free from “chemical trespass.”
  • In 2019, the High Court in Bangladesh recognized legal rights of rivers.
  • In 2019, the Yurok tribe in the U.S. initiated efforts to recognize legal rights of the Klamath River.
  • In 2019, in Colombia, the Plata River was recognized as a “subject of rights.”
  • In 2019, a bill to recognize Rights of Nature was introduced into the Congress of the Philippines.
  • In 2019, a workshop on the rights of nature was held in the Swedish Parliament, the Riksdag.
  • In 2019, the Rights of Nature and Future Generations Bill was introduced into the Parliament of Western Australian. It recognizes rights for “Nature, including all ecosystems, ecological communities and native species,” as well as “present and future generations.”
  • In 2019, the Dutch municipality of Nordeast-Fryslan passed a motion that proposes granting special rights to the Wadden Sea. It also proposed an independent governance authority for ecosystem protection.
  • In 2019, the Municipality of Florianopolis passed a law recognizing rights of Nature
  • In 2019, the Congress of the State of Colima approved an amendment to the state constitution recognizing the Rights of Nature.
  • In 2019, a state constitutional amendment was introduced into  the House of Representatives of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Amendment language contains: “The right to local self-government includes, without limitation, the power to enact local laws: (1) protecting health, safety and welfare by establishing the rights of people, their communities and nature and by securing those rights using prohibitions and other means; and (2) establishing, defining, altering or eliminating the rights, powers and duties of corporations and other business entities operating or seeking to operate in the community.”
  • Federal lawsuit filed by Ohio communities, arguing systematic repression of qualified local Rights of Nature ballot initiatives.
  • In 2020, for the first time in U.S. history, the rights of a specific ecosystem were argued in federal court in defense of the Lake Erie Bill of Rights. Groups and individuals from across the globe show support.
  • For the first time in U.S. history, in March 2020, a state was successfully pressured to enforce a local Rights of Nature law, in Grant Township, Indiana County, Pennsylvania.
  • In 2020, the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin asserted that the Menominee River has the right to exist naturally, flourish, evolve, remain unpolluted and carry out its natural ecosystem functions.
  • In 2020, Curridabat, Costa Rica afforded citizenship to pollinators, trees and native plants.
  • In 2020, the Nez Perce Tribe General Council passed a resolution recognizing the SnakeRiver as a living entity that has rights, including the right to exist, flourish, evolve, flow, regenerate — and a right to its restoration.”
  • In 2020, the Spanish municipality of Los Alcázares approved an initiative to recognize the rights of Mar Menor, a lagoon.
  • In 2020, the Ecuadorian Constitutional Court agreed to hear a case based on the Rights of Nature enshrined in Ecuador’s Constitution. It will hear arguments in a case to protect the Los Cedros Protected Forest from mining.
  • The Alliance for the Sacred Sites of Earth Gaia released the Declaration for the Protection of Sacred Natural Sites in 2020. It asserts: “Sacred Natural Sites require the highest form of legal protection through the recognition of rights of Nature.”
  • In 2020 the Blue Mountain Council of New South Wales, Australia, resolved to integrate the rights of nature in its municipal planning and operations.
  • In 2020 the Tŝilhqot’in Nation enacted a “ʔEsdilagh Sturgeon River Law.” It states: “The Aboriginal title and rights of the Tŝilhqot’in people includes the tu [waters] in our territory, including ʔElhdaqox [the Sturgeon River]. Nen [lands] and tu cannot be separated but are interconnected.” It recognizes that “People, animals, fish, plants, the nen, and the tu have rights in the decisions about their care and use that must be considered and respected.”

  • Research: This occurred, for example, in August of 2007, when delegates from several indigenous nations around the world met at the Lummi. Nation and signed a proposed treaty creating the “United League of Indigenous Nations.”20 According to Chief Jaret Cardinal of the Sucker Creek Cree Nation, the treaty was intended to provide a mechanism for indigenous nations to stand together on common issues, including global warming and international trade.


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Featured image: Fall, by Jessie Hodge, Flickr Creative Commons