Nature’s Voice: The Rise of the Rights of Nature in the Legal System

By Elf



In our previous blog, we introduced the concept of the Rights of Nature – the belief that nature should have legally recognized and protected inherent rights. As environmental awareness continues to increase, people and communities are searching for ways to make a positive impact. One of these ways is through the legal system, with notable cases and initiatives advancing the cause of the rights of nature.

The roots of recognizing and protecting nature’s inherent rights can be traced back to the spiritual and cultural beliefs of Indigenous communities. To them, nature is not a commodity to be exploited but rather an integral and interconnected aspect of their way of life and culture. For these communities, ecological integrity and cultural justice are closely intertwined. Despite comprising a small percentage of the global population, Indigenous peoples are responsible for safeguarding 80% of the Earth’s remaining biodiversity through their stewardship of forests, grasslands, deserts, and marine ecosystems.


The recognition and protection of the inherent rights of nature, as practised by Indigenous communities, is now being translated into modern legal systems and cases. The 1972 case of Sierra Club v. Morton, also known as the “Skagit River case” in the United States, helped establish the legal standing of environmental organizations to sue the government on behalf of the environment, paving the way for other cases to follow. This ruling was important as it expanded the ability of environmental organizations to use the court system to protect the environment and it helped to establish the principle that the environment has legal standing and rights that can be protected by the courts.


In 2008, through the efforts of Indigenous social movements, Ecuador adopted a new constitution which recognised the Rights of Nature. Ecuador’s ground-breaking law was the first of its kind in the world and marked a new era in legal systems that prioritize the protection of the environment. The constitution reflects this new understanding, acknowledging the rights of Mother Earth to preserve and regenerate its natural cycles, structures, and evolutionary processes., The application of these principles was demonstrated in 2022 when the Ecuadorian Supreme Court ruled in favour of protecting the Los Cedros cloud forest from mining and other extractive activities, setting a precedent for future conservation efforts not just in Ecuador but around the world. The Ecuadorian ruling serves as a powerful example of how Indigenous wisdom, which has always recognized this holistic understanding of nature, can be integrated into legal systems to bring about meaningful change. The precedent set in Ecuador is a hopeful sign that we can move towards a more just and sustainable society, one in which the rights of nature are upheld and protected.


In 2010 and 2012, Bolivia followed in the footsteps of Ecuador and recognized the inherent rights of nature through national legislation. This legislation acknowledged nature’s right to life and existence, to maintain vital cycles untouched by human interference, the right to pure and clean air, and the right to be free from pollution. It also established legal protection for nature from development projects that threaten the delicate balance of ecosystems. Once again, this progressive legislation was championed and won by Indigenous tribes, who have long borne the negative impacts of extractive industries.


In 2014, New Zealand passed the Te Urewera Act, which granted legal personhood to the Te Urewera forest. This was a first-of-its-kind ruling in the world, acknowledging the forest as a living entity with its own rights. This principle was extended to the Whanganui River in 2017, recognizing the Māori iwi, as guardians of these lands and the river, to speak on its behalf for its right to regenerate freely. This means that while the river and the forest can continue to be used by humans, the ownership of these lands will no longer be held by individuals but by the land itself. This represents a shift in the understanding of our relationship with nature, recognizing that nature is not a mere resource to be exploited, but rather an integral and interconnected aspect of our existence, deserving of legal protection and respect.


These pioneering cases have sparked a global movement to recognize the inherent rights of nature. In recent years, countries such as India, Bangladesh, Bolivia, Colombia, Mexico City, Uganda, and the USA have incorporated some form of the Rights of Nature into their legal systems. Currently, several countries in Europe are exploring the possibility of incorporating the Rights of Nature into their legal systems. Additionally, in Northern Ireland and Ireland, local governments and communities have been advocating for the inclusion of the Rights of Nature in their constitutions and have adopted Rights of Nature motions. A recent citizen’s assembly on biodiversity loss in Ireland concluded with a majority of 83% of participants recommending that the River Shannon, the largest river in Ireland and an important site of biodiversity, be protected under legislation in a similar fashion to the Whanganui River in New Zealand. This further highlights the growing momentum and recognition of the importance of protecting nature’s rights in the legal framework.


These laws not only protect delicate ecosystems but also ensure that human activities are carried out within a framework of legal responsibility, requiring extractive developers to prove that their actions will not cause harm to vital ecosystems. Each successful case for the Rights of Nature sets a precedent for future cases and contributes to the fight against climate change, leading towards a sustainable and healthy future for all species. It is a hopeful sign that we can move towards a more just and sustainable society, one in which the rights of nature are upheld and protected, and in which nature is recognized as an integral and interconnected aspect of our existence, deserving of legal protection and respect.

Consider donating to help us continue fighting for nature’s rights.

The work that we do is powered by people like you. If you’d like to support us, as we help grassroots organisations fight for environemental justice, you can do so by donating here.