Ideas from indigenous peoples are taken up to give nature more rights: countries like Ecuador, Bolivia and Uganda make rivers, forests and even rice legal entities. Does this help with environmental protection?

“We don’t see ourselves as the owners of wild rice,” says Frank Bibeau, an attorney for the Anishinaabe people, an indigenous group that lives in the northern United States and Canada. “We see ourselves as symbiotic partners, as equals before God.”

When harvesting, the Anishinaabe thresh the wild rice, also called ‘Manoomin’, and many seeds fly into the air.

“A lot of rice is scattered in all directions and then sown again. About half or a little more falls in our canoes – which we then use as food,” explains Bibeau. “So we are also part of the natural process of reseeding.”

Wild rice has been part of the Anishinaabe diet in the Great Lakes region of North America for many generations. To stop an oil pipeline that is now to be built by the ecosystem, Bibeau has drafted a new tribal law that gives Manoomin rice its own rights. 

According to the non-governmental organization  ‘Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund’ (CELDF), which advised Bibeau on the legislation, Manoomin rice is the first plant to be granted its own rights. Various rivers, forests and nature in general are already protected by “natural rights” worldwide. 

Members of the Waorani people protest in EcuadorIn Quito, Ecuador, the Waorani are protesting for a say in interfering with their living space

Indigenous approaches to legislation

“Conventional environmental laws are actually there to regulate how we treat nature,” explains Mari Margil from CELDF. “The consequences of these regulations have been so devastating that people around the world are now saying that we need a significant change in our relationship with nature.”

More and more politicians and environmental organizations argue that indigenous peoples are the most reliable keepers of our planet. Giving rights to nature could anchor their perspectives even more widely in society.

In this sense, Ecuador became the first country to incorporate natural rights in its constitution in 2008. Nature is personified in it by Pachamama, who is worshiped in the Andes as the goddess of the earth.

Bolivia and Uganda have now also included natural rights in their constitutions, and Sweden is already applying for a similar constitutional amendment.

Indigenous protest against the Trans Mountain Pipeline in Canada Indigenous protests against a pipeline in Canada

A healthier relationship with nature

Attributing one’s own rights to nature can not only be used to criminalize environmental polluters. It also questions the nature of environmental protection, which sees nature only as a kind of service provider and only calculates the economic value of clean air, water, biodiversity or nature reserves.

In New Zealand, the Iwi Maori people were no longer allowed to enter the protected area around the Whanganui River in New Zealand, although the tribe had been hunting and fishing there for generations. In 2017, the conflict was resolved by declaring the river to be a separate legal entity that belongs neither to the state nor to the indigenous peoples.

Maori law professor Jacinta Ruru sees it as groundbreaking that New Zealand law now takes into account the particularly close relationship between indigenous peoples and the environment – and makes no difference whether something is good for people or nature. 

“My people compare the veins in their arms with the rivers in the country,” explains Ruru. “For us, our own health, happiness and well-being are completely connected to the health and well-being of nature around us.”

Strategic compromises

Ruru says it is too early to assess the environmental impact of the Whanganui River’s new legal status in New Zealand. It also remains to be seen whether the new legal status for Manoomin rice will actually meet the interests of pipeline investors.

In Ecuador, the new constitution was used to prevent the construction of plantations and roads that threatened forest areas. But the new constitutional laws have not been enough to change an entire economic system based on economic growth. In many cases, which indigenous groups have raised against businesses, economic interests have triumphed over the rights of Pachamama, the goddess of nature.

Critics also point out that the decision to make rivers and forests legal entities has more to do with Western legal systems than with indigenous ideas of the deification of nature.

“There is a strategic relationship between indigenous groups and the rights of nature,” said political scientist Mihnea Tanasescu, who wrote a book on the subject in Ecuador. “But there is not necessarily a similarity of philosophical approaches, because rights as such correspond to a very western legal view.”

Michelle Maloney of the Australian NGO ‘Earth Laws Alliance’ is currently drafting a law based on the traditions of the Aboriginal people, for whom every law is based on the relationship with the country.  

“The concept of a legal person is gaining attention in the world right now,” she says, because “the average western lawyer understands this concept.”

The Ganges and the Yamuna River in Asia are now legal entities, as is every one of the hundreds of rivers in Bangladesh. Colombian courts have repeatedly ruled that the rights of rivers and forests have been violated by pollution and deforestation.

Aerial view of Lake Erie in the USA with algae plagueLake Eerie fights algae and other pollution

These rights are based on specific local indigenous ideas. The US organization CELDF plays a key role in the establishment of natural rights in legislation worldwide.

In 2006, CELDF worked on the world’s first law granting natural rights – a local ordinance that banned toxic waste disposal in Pennsylvania. Since then, according to Margil, nearly 40 natural rights laws have been passed in the United States. Many have been sparked by activists who have no indigenous connections but are disappointed by a legal system that only recognizes damage to nature when people’s health or livelihood is affected. 

A change of discourse

One of these cases went through the international media last year. Residents of the city of Toledo, Ohio, on the shores of heavily polluted Lake Erie, voted to give the lake its own rights. A nearby farm, however, initiated legal proceedings to protect the rights of the agricultural industry. 

Whanganui River in New ZealandThe Whanganui River in New Zealand offered long conflict potential

Since Ohio lawmakers sidelined the proposed law, activists have been trying to revitalize it. Their protests make it clear that the current legal system treats nature only as property, but recognizes companies as legal entities. 

“People often don’t think about the invisible systems that rule our world,” Maloney says. “As a beginning – and to actually change the public discussion – the rights of nature can be very helpful.”


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