The movement to recognize various non-human relations, from animals to Mother Earth, as legal subjects rather than mere objects to be owned or resources to be exploited is rapidly gaining momentum globally under various guises including "Wild Law," animal rights, and legal personhood for rivers and ecosystems. Indigenous peoples and local communities are often at the forefront of this movement. The oversimplified label "rights of nature" is often attached to this idea, but the movement transcends and in some ways challenges a "rights" paradigm. We prefer instead to talk about "legal recognition for non-human relations," which is admittedly a bit of a mouthful.
The Centre for Law and the Environment's "Non-Human Relations" project aims to explore the options and strategies for legal recognition of non-human relations by organizing and hosting events, conducting research, providing public legal information, and supporting groups interested in pursuing legal strategies in this field.
The "Rights of Nature" Movement
The legal systems of most nation-states, including Canada, treat nature and its components mainly as objects to be owned. Animals, trees, rivers, lakes, mountains, ecosystems and the planet are not legal persons with responsibilities and rights, but resources to be exploited for human enjoyment. Orcas have no legal right to limit tanker traffic in the Salish Sea or even to survive as a species; Grizzly Bear Spirit and its mountain home of Qat'muk have no legal right to stop the construction of a ski resort; and a forest has no legal standing to object to a clearcut logging permit. Humans and their artificial creations, corporations, stand apart from and above nature. They alone have legal rights and responsibilities.
In this system, is it any surprise that natural systems are degraded or collapsing as a result of human activity?
The Rights of Nature movement emerged in reaction to this ecologically destructive logic. This burgeoning global movement recognizes nature and its components—from individual organisms to species, ecosystems and the planet itself—as living beings with legal rights. Their rights include the right to exist, be respected, flourish and be restored, as well as the right to health, diversity, and a legal voice. Humans and their institutions have corresponding responsibilities to respect and live in harmony with other members of the planetary community and to help keep them alive and healthy for generations to come.
Legal Recognition of Non-Human Relations Around the World
- In 2006, the township of Tamaqua, Pennsylvania declared that natural communities and ecosystems are persons with legal rights, and that corporations' interference with their existence and flourishing is unlawful
- Ecuador included rights of nature in its 2008 Constitution
- Bolivia passed laws protecting the rights of Mother Earth and played a key role in the 2010 adoption of the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth
- Maori and settler authorities in Aotearoa/New Zealand crafted innovative laws to recognize the Whanganui river, Mount Taranaki and the former Te Urewera national park as legal persons with enforceable rights
- Courts in Colombia recognized the legal rights of the Atrato river and the Amazon River Ecosystem
- Indian courts recognized the legal rights of the Ganges river, the glaciers that feed it and the entire animal kingdom
- Legal recognition of the Whanganui, Ganges and Atrato rivers led to the drafting of the 2020 Universal Declaration of River Rights, which recognizes rivers as living entities that have legal standing and sets out their rights, including the right to flow
- In 2020, the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin declared that the Menominee River possess inherent and legal rights.
The movement had its first major breakthrough in Canada in February 2021 when the Regional County Municipality of Minganie and the Innu Council of Ekuanitshit resolved that Mutehekau Shipu (the Magpie River) in Quebec is a living entity with legal personality and nine enumerated rights.
The idea that nature and its components are living beings and that all members of the planetary community, human and non-human, have rights and responsibilities to one another, has deep roots in many cultures. It resonates with the diverse worldviews and legal orders of many Indigenous peoples, who are stewards of the majority of Earth’s remaining biodiversity and are often frontline defenders of land, air, water and living creatures. As a result, protecting Indigenous rights, including the right to self-government and to free, prior and informed consent, can be an effective way to protect the rights of nature. But it is not clear that the reverse is always true. If rights of nature laws are not designed and implemented appropriately, they could end up being used to infringe Indigenous rights and undermine the authority of Indigenous laws and governments. This is especially a concern in places like British Columbia, where Indigenous peoples retain title and rights over vast areas of unceded territory and are in the process of revitalizing their governments and laws.
What are We Doing?
The goal of the Centre for Law and the Environment's "Non-Human Relations" project is to explore the options and strategies for legal recognition of non-human relations by organizing and hosting events, conducting research, providing public legal information and support, and providing services for groups interested in pursuing legal strategies in this field.
- Events: The Centre organizes and hosts workshops and other events related to the legal recognition of non-human relations. Between September 2021 and February 2022, we are hosting a series of webinars and a workshop aimed at non-legally trained individuals interested in implementing laws to protect and respect non-human relations like rivers, forests, animal species and ecosystems. Past events include a 1-day online workshop in March 2020. The public workshop featured presentations of the latest research on Rights of Nature by Allard JD students, followed by questions and discussion with a panel of distinguished environmental and Indigenous researchers and practitioners including Dr. David Boyd, Mari Margil, Terri-Lynn Williams-Davidson and others. The workshop was followed by a keynote address by rights of nature pioneer Mari Margil.
Research: The Centre conducts research on the legal recognition of non-human relations. Visit the Publications page to read the working papers published by the Centre on this subject.
Outreach and Education: The Centre provides legal information and support for those interested in pursuing legal recognition of non-human relations. For example, we are developing plain language guides on "rights of nature" laws around the world and on the relationship between the rights of nature movement and the resurgence of Indigenous law and governance. We are also hosting a series of practical workshops in 2021-22 for community organizers on strategies to advance recognition of the legal rights and capacities of rivers, non-human species, sacred places and other non-human entities.
Partnerships and Collaboration: The Centre has collaborative relationships with the Center for Democratic and Environmental Rights, the International Observatory on the Rights of Nature, Ecojustice, David Suzuki Foundation, Sierra Club BC, Rights of Nature BC, West Coast Environmental Law, the University of Victoria Environmental Law Centre, forest protection groups on Bowen Island and the Sunshine Coast, and other groups interested in legal protection for non-human relations.
What Can we Do for you?
As a university-based hub for research and action at the intersection of law and the environment, the Centre is well posed to play a constructive role as:
- Neutral convenor: facilitating dialogue amongst Indigenous constituencies, environmental groups, settler governments, practising lawyers and academic researchers by convening workshops, working groups and so on;
- Knowledge broker: gathering and making available knowledge, practices and developments relating to rights of nature in BC and around the world;
- Legal researcher: conducting confidential and/or publicly disseminated research into legal recognition for non-human relations, from big-picture societal and philosophical issues to nitty-gritty legal details;
- Practical consultant: exploring and drafting concrete, operational proposals for recognizing and implementing rights or personhood for non-human relations in the law of particular Indigenous or settler communities, from local to national levels; and
- Awareness builder: leveraging the University's profile and position to raise awareness of issues related to rights of nature, and to promote healthier relationships amongst humans and non-human relations.
For more information, please contact Stepan Wood, email@example.com.