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, also available in Spanish and French:

  • 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 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, including in Bonn in 2017.
  • In 2010, Bolivia’s Legislative Assembly passed the Law of the Rights of Mother Earth.
  • 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 to recognize rights of the Ganga River through national legislation. The campaign slogan is “Ganga’s Rights are Our Rights.”
  • In 2012, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) 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. Efforts are now advancing in Ohio, New Hampshire, Oregon, and other states.
  • 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 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.
  • 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 international Rights of Nature Symposium was held at Tulane Law School in the U.S. The Rights of Nature Principles – outlining the central elements of Rights of Nature laws – were issued from the Symposium. The Principles are available at https://celdf.org/rights-nature-symposium/.
  • 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 Ponca Nation of Oklahoma adopted a customary law recognizing the rights of nature.
  • In 2018, the Colombian Supreme Court recognized the Colombian Amazon as a “subject of rights.”
  • 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 an 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. recognized legal rights of the Klamath River.
  • In 2019, in Colombia, the Plata River was recognized as a “subject of rights.”
  • In 2019, a workshop on the rights of nature was held in the Swedish Parliament, the Riksdag, the first event of its kind.


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