Some countries have given personality to unique and revered places, including the Atrato River in Colombia and the Whanganui River in New Zealand, which are revered by indigenous Maori. In Australia, the local council of Blue Mountains, a city near Sydney, was the first to integrate the concept of natural rights into its activities this spring. And in May, a natural rights lawsuit was filed in Orange County, Florida, on behalf of several waterways under the county`s “natural rights law,” which voters approved last November. The lawsuit argues that several waterways and wetlands could be destroyed by a proposed 1,900-acre residential development. “The process of recognizing traditional government structures and terrestrial jurisprudence that supports sacred natural sites stems from the recognition that nature has its own inherent right to exist and thrive. With progressive laws such as the National Environment Act of 2019 and the Rights of Nature Regulations, we will soon face courts with traditional guardians and leaders to defend the rights of lakes, rivers, trees and other sensitive ecosystems. We must first anchor them in law! “It is possible for people to revive traditions and reconnect with nature, which is crucial in the context of climate change,” says Liz Hosken, director of the Gaia Foundation, which supported the campaign to encourage the Ugandan government to enact the Natural Rights Act. “But they have been so demonized that it takes them a while to believe their story again.” Christina Voigt, an expert in international environmental law at the University of Oslo, says nature conservation laws “show promising evidence that they can increase the level of protection.” But she warns that they are “a tool in a whole toolbox of legal approaches. One does not exclude the other. While the rights of nature laws seem innovative, they are rooted in ancient Indigenous thought.
The world`s 370 million indigenous people represent 5% of the world`s population, but live on land that is home to 80% of the planet`s biodiversity. For millennia, they have preserved habitats by understanding how, when and where to hunt, breed and fish without depleting ecosystems, even as their complicated practices have been dismissed as “pagan” or “primitive” by a rapidly industrialized and colonized world. Ugandan officials acknowledge the apparent contradictions in efforts to balance competing demands. “The Natural Rights Act reflects how seriously the government views nature and how far it will go to protect it,” said Naomi Karekaho, spokesperson for Uganda`s National Environmental Management Authority. “That doesn`t mean there aren`t challenges. Nature definitely has its own rights. But this also applies to people and development. By treating forests, lakes and other ecosystems as living things and enshrining nature`s right to “exist, exist, maintain and regenerate,” Uganda joined a growing global movement to recognize the value of the natural world as an equal part rather than a resource to be exploited – and became the first African nation to do so. At least 14 countries have adopted measures to protect natural rights since 2008, when Ecuador added rights-based protection to its constitution. Natural places have the “right” to complain; Parent bodies are appointed in these countries to serve as the human face of the ecosystem during consultations and judicial hearings. Activists say they can draw a direct line from the disappearance of traditional belief systems and the loss of habitat and biodiversity – and to successfully protect the environment, these marginalized Indigenous voices must be restored.
In other words, human rights and natural rights go hand in hand; One cannot be achieved without the other, says Margret Kagole, a Ugandan elder from the Bagungu minority. “Our laws can preserve these countries.” In 2019, as the scale of the oil development project took shape, the government took a paradoxical step: it passed a groundbreaking environmental law that could protect the fragile habitat in which the oil project is located. The law formally recognizes the rights of nature in the same way that human rights are recognized, and allows nature to be designated as an aggrieved party in litigation for “any violation” of those rights. Uganda`s Natural Rights Act contains a clause stating that the government can choose which natural sites should and should not be protected by law, creating a worrying loophole. The government is drafting regulations that will guide decisions on protective measures; As oilfield development progresses, campaigners fear regulation is too late. And natural rights lawsuits don`t always take. In 2017, after an Indian court granted legal personality status to the revered Ganges and its main tributary, the Yamuna River, India`s Supreme Court overturned the order, saying it was not legally defensible. In a similar case in 2020, after voters in Toledo, Ohio, approved an initial such election measure to add personality to Lake Erie, a federal court dismissed it as too vague. “This is a dramatic new setting that gives nature a voice,” said Grant Wilson, executive director of the Earth Law Center, a Colorado-based environmental group.
“It`s a new DNA for the legal system.” Philippe Sands, a lawyer and professor of law at University College London, specialising in human rights and environmental issues, sees the movement as a “broader shift in consciousness”. Natural rights, he says, “are an expression of the realization that we cannot always put ourselves at the centre.” Ugandan lawyers believe their best bet lies in moderation, not stopping, the project – and that invoking natural law could help. “I`m a legal realist,” says Frank Tumusiime, whose environmental nonprofit Advocates for Natural Resources & Development helped create the law. “The Tilenza project is a fait accompli. We should focus on the mitigation plan. Over time, however, the true value of natural law laws may lie less in the strength of their teeth in protecting the environment than in signaling a paradigm shift at this critical moment for the planet. In April, Ugandan and Tanzanian government officials signed definitive agreements with French oil giant TotalEnergies and a Beijing-based giant called China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) to extract about 1.7 billion barrels from a 425-square-mile drilling area that partially extends into the national park and below a UNESCO wetland. The oil is then pumped 900 miles away by the world`s longest heated pipeline to the Indian Ocean port city of Tanga in Tanzania. The pipeline passes through critical wildlife habitat; The port is surrounded by mangroves and coral reefs. International observers estimate that the project will displace thousands of farmers. The first oil export is scheduled for 2025.