The Rights of Nature was born out of a global movement since the promulgation of Ecuador’s Federal Constitution in 2008. They proposed a paradigmatic change for the legal sciences and society.
In 1961 the image of the lonely, defenceless, and unique Earth was released for the first time: “The Earth is blue,” said the Soviet astronaut Iuri Gagarin. The photos were only seen after Apollo 8 registered the rising of the Earth from the moon’s point of view in 1968.
This first sentimental contact with the delicacy and fragility of the Earth gave rise to a series of other scientific, social, political, and finally legal aspects to the point of creating a new right, the right to a balanced environment, or Environmental Law.
The environmentalist thought is registered in a few phrases since Plato asserted itself in some insignificant British movements in 1865 when the first private environmentalist group Commons, Open Spaces, and Footpaths Preservation Society, was founded.
At the time, it became confused with anti-nuclear, anti-Vietnam War, and anti-racial injustice movements. However, environmentalism as we know it today (the transformation of consciences and customs) emerged after 1962.
This cultural, scientific, and political awakening culminated with the first UN Conference on the Environment, held from the 5th to 16th June 1972 in Stockholm. The Stockholm Declaration is the first legal document that marks the birth of Environmental Law.
Only through its principles and instruments is a new branch of Law founded. Thus, the start was set for all countries to internalise their legislation. This was based on a new focus: the environment as a value to be measured, protected, and valued.
Marked by the Cold War, it did not achieve any substantial effects, but it did establish the legal framework for a new era of rights, the emergence of Environmental Law. It fostered in each country the development of norms based on the founding principles of environmentalism, still under an anthropocentric framework. The Stockholm Declaration lists 26 codes and contains a 7-point preamble.
It is urgent to incorporate a paradigmatic revolution that will provide the necessary theoretical basis to solve the current problems of the Earth system in an accelerated process of degradation. This new paradigm could save us by preventing the destruction of the Earth, without which everything would be impossible: the future of the 21st century depends on it.
This new consciousness will promote the alignment of human activities with other forces operating throughout the planet and the universe to achieve a creative equilibrium. Thus we can guarantee a shared future, in which there is a balance of relations between nature and society in the sense of synergy and mutual belonging.
The Law of Nature cannot be seen isolated; it cannot be conceived by a Eurocentric or anthropocentric religiosity, capable of separating nature as a mythical being. Nature is a being with a personality and reason other than the colonial logic constructed by the modern and colonial world system. Nature as a subject of rights is built by Indigenous, Quilombola, and Traditional Community cosmology and legality.
This legality manifests itself through an ancestral customary law that existed before the European invasion of the lands of Indigenous people. They relate to nature as their mother, as their source of existence, as an element of their identity.
It generates their medicines, their food, maintains the cycle of life, with rationality conceived without waste or aggression. They conceptualise this rationality simply as “respect” for their way of life.
In Ecuador’s 2008 Constitution, the Rights of Nature has four articles – from 71 to 74 – defining and guaranteeing them. Article 72 states: “The State will apply precautionary and restrictive measures to activities that could lead to the extinction of species, the destruction of ecosystems or the permanent alteration of natural cycles.” Article 74 states that “individuals, communities, peoples, and nations shall have the right to benefit from the environment and natural wealth that enable them to live well.”
The Whanganui River settlement took place in 2014 and became law in 2017 in New Zealand, settling the country’s longest-running dispute. The Whanganui River is considered sacred to the Maori and is the longest navigable river in New Zealand, known as Aotearoa by Maori.
Te Awa Tupue is the Maori name for the river and means “the supernatural river.” It is considered an ancestor of the Maori and includes the river and mountain area, all the way to the sea. The Maori relationship with the river is not based on the concept of ownership, but instead of union, “I am the river, the river is me,” says the proverb in the text of the Act, Te Awa Tupue Act.
The General Theory of Rights of Nature is founded on the principle of Harmony with Nature, Interdependence, Reciprocity, Complementarity, and Community Making. The focus of Harmony with Nature is set out in article 312 of the Bolivian Constitution, which establishes the need for a plural economy model.
The processes of industrialisation and exploitation of natural resources must be guided by it. The principle of reciprocity consists of the relationship between nature and human beings, including in the sense of renouncing the subjugation of nature by human beings as a commodity.
The Bolivian law 71 of 2010 established the Rights of Mother Earth. Article 7 provides the principle of interdependence and complementarity of the components of “Mother Earth,” and its observance is necessary to respect the balance for the continuation of the cycles of reproduction of vital processes.
This law also establishes a definition of “Mother Earth” in article 5. “Mother Earth” is defined as a living and dynamic system formed by an indivisible community of all life systems and human beings, all interrelated, interdependent, and complementary, sharing a common destiny.
This change proposes the transition from an anthropocentric to an ecocentric vision. It would be achieved by advocating a more balanced relational perspective between people and nature. In other words, a philosophy that breaks with the utilitarian model in which humans consider nature as a mere appropriable resource. Additionally, where humans and non-humans recognise each other as members of the same planetary community.
The Government of Bolivia institutionalised the principle of Harmony in its 2009 constitutional text (art. 8, II). To sensitise the international community, Bolivia, in the same year, proposed to the General Assembly of the United Nations to declare April 22 as the “International Day of Mother Earth,” which was accepted by Resolution A/RES/63/278, 22.04.2009, from which the Initiative Harmony with Nature was born.
As recognised in the Reports of the United Nations’ Harmony with Nature Programme, the concept of sustainable development, based on the positions of “weak sustainability” or even “strong sustainability,” because it is founded on an anthropocentric worldview, represents a model that is out of step with current scientific and philosophical knowledge.
In 2018, the Supreme Court of Justice, following the jurisprudence settled by the Constitutional Court, and basing itself on the decision previously analysed, declared the Colombian Amazon to be a subject of rights.
The lawsuit was petitioned by a group of children and young people between 7 and 25 years old, claiming that they were part of future generations since, in the forecasts of the worst effects of climate change, they would be 78 years old on average.
There you have it, the countries who have declared nature’s rights. Just as we are considered living and worthy of our rights, so is Mother Earth and, as a result, nature. Nature and Mother Earth are our reason for being here; they have given us a place to exist, live and thrive. For that reason, we must protect it, and declaring its rights is a great starting point.