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What if the environment held the same legal rights as a human?

Bestowing the natural world with the same legal rights as humans is a strategy that is gaining traction around the world for its capacity to provide better protection against degradation.

user iconJess Feyder 22 February 2023 Big Law
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If the environment held the same legal rights as human beings, would we still be allowed to treat it as we do now — destroying habitats, polluting, and exploiting its resources? This line of thinking is what is prompting communities and activists around the globe to push for the natural world to be granted the same fundamental legal rights afforded to people.

Two academics at UNSW Sydney, Dr Marc De Leeuw and Scientia PhD candidate Alice Bleby of the law and justice faculty, elaborate on the theories behind this strategy and how it appears around the globe. 

Dr De Leeuw, who specialises in the philosophical implications of new and evolving laws, explained that the “rights of nature” movement is gaining momentum around the globe.


“The rights of nature movement is an attempt to reimagine what law should be and what it stands for,” Dr De Leeuw elaborated. 

“Rights of nature makes a fundamental shift from human-focused law, where human rights are all about the rights of human beings, to the rights of nature, which also overcomes this fundamental binary in law between persons and things.

“It says that people can no longer own nature, and what makes up nature and the environment, are no longer seen as ‘things’.”

He noted that the rights of nature movement departs from a reliance on politicians and lawmakers and has a distinctive grassroots flavour.

“It isn’t a top-down movement. It comes from communities who have often directly been impacted by environmental pollution, degradation, or climate change, and were disappointed by more conventional environmental law approaches which have often been ineffective,” Dr De Leeuw illuminated. 

There are several recent examples of the strategy being actualised. 

In 2008, Ecuador recognised the rights of nature in its constitution. In 2019, the city of Toledo, Ohio, in the US, drew up the Lake Erie Bill of Rights after blue-algal blooms made the city’s water supply undrinkable some years prior.

In 2017, the Whanganui River in New Zealand was granted legal personhood, and currently, in the Netherlands, The Hague is in the process of deliberating whether the North Sea should be considered a legal person. 

Ms Bleby has studied the growth of rights of nature legislation in various parts of the globe, which began in the early 2000s.

She explained that fears about the looming climate catastrophe, and despair over environmental disasters of humanity’s own making, are prompting people to seek change at the legislative level.

“There’s a real sense that after 50 years of environmental law, it’s failing to protect the environment,” Ms Bleby commented. 

“There’s a rethinking of what the law’s attitude to the environment is, and realising that what has been done to date has been about slowing down degradation and balancing various interests — but the rate of devastation that the planet is experiencing means that that’s just not sufficient anymore. 

“Looking at rights, or personhood, is about elevating nature much higher in the hierarchy of priorities,” she said. 

How is this appearing in Australia?

Australian laws have not yet progressed to granting personhood to any part of the natural world, yet change is underway at all levels of government to move down this path.

In 2019, a report commissioned by the Australian Earth Laws Alliance, the recommendations posited that the Great Barrier Reef should be recognised with legal personhood, so it would hold legal rights and protections under Australian law. 

At the state level, the NSW state government passed a symbolic motion that recognised the rights of rivers and other waterways in the state in 2019.

In Western Australia, the Nyikina Mangala and Bunuba people submitted a proposal to the state government to recognise the Fitzroy River as an ancestral person in 2016. 

Diverse approaches

Ms Bleby recognised that there is no one approach that is best when it comes to affecting such change; each case has its own unique set of circumstances that targets laws at different levels. 

“I think the ultimate goal is to recognise nature as a legal subject within a law of some kind — the more significant the law, the better,” she argued. 

“These laws can be made at a local, state, national or regional level, or even at the constitutional level.

“A lot of the practical implementation has to do with what’s feasible within a jurisdiction, and also the type of community advocacy and the drivers in a particular context for recognising the law.” 

Indigenous engagement 

One could argue that modern societies’ recognition of the rights of nature shows that we’ve arrived at the party quite late, considering indigenous cultures around the world have been doing this for millennia.

“I think it’s vital that Indigenous communities are involved in the development of these types of laws in Australia; they certainly won’t realise their potential if they don’t engage with Indigenous Australians and their views and perspectives,” Ms Bleby explained. 

“Not all Indigenous people support the rights of nature … [some] feel that it either doesn’t appropriately represent Indigenous views or feel there’s a risk that Indigenous communities could be bypassed.

“It’s really important to recognise these views to ensure that it’s not a perpetuation of a colonial legal framework,” she added. 

Dr De Leeuw concurred: “The Indigenous perspective is very important in our move towards enshrining rights of nature in laws. We have to reimagine our fundamental legal concepts like property, or like nature.”

He explained that in Australia, the rights of nature are not yet “part of the cultural imagination”.

“To trigger serious debate and real inclusions of an effective ‘rights of nature’ position within our legal system, we need many things to come together!” Dr De Leeuw stated. “But if there’s no wish to go down that path, it will be very hard to actually realise.”