Mother Nature Gets Her Day in Court

Rights of nature laws seek to grant the environment legal rights similar to those of people or corporations.

THE GIST

Communities in the United States have laws granting rights to nature.

In Ecuador, a judge upheld the constitutional rights of nature to stop a destructive road building project.

Ecuador and Bolivia granted legal rights to the environment within the past few years. But what are those rights and can they really be enforced?

"The rights of nature laws recognize the rights of ecosystems and natural communities to exist, to flourish, to regenerate, and to evolve," Mari Margill, associate director of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), told Discovery News. CELDF helped Ecuador write the rights of nature into legal reality.

"The rights of nature laws move nature from being considered 'property' under the law to being recognized as 'rights bearing' under the law," said Margill.

But laws are nothing but ink on paper if not enforced. A court case in Ecuador showed that these Earth friendly laws have claws and aren't just idealistic public relations legislation.

Article 71 of Ecuador's constitution acknowledged the rights of the environment in 2008. The first court case to test the strength of these rights was held March 30, 2011. Two plaintiffs presented a constitutional injunction to halt a road project which deposited rock, tree trunks and other debris in the Vilcabamba River. The plaintiffs stood in for the damaged ecosystem in court, much like a legal guardian stands in for a child. The local provincial court found in favor of the environment and upheld the injunction.

"Even as these laws are just beginning to be enforced... they are still important because they play a significant educational role in raising awareness about the rights and needs of nature," Linda Sheehan, executive director of the Earth Law Center, told Discovery News.

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Giving Mother Nature her day in court isn't limited to the Southern Hemisphere.

"Several dozen municipalities in the US have adopted rights of nature laws. This includes the City of Pittsburgh, in November 2010. CELDF assisted the city to draft the ordinance which also is the first in the nation to ban corporations from natural gas drilling within a municipality," Margill said.

Sheehan recently worked with Santa Monica, California to develop a "Sustainability Bill of Rights," which acknowledged the rights of nature.

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The American legal system has been considering the environment's legal standing for at least 40 years. Justice William Douglas' dissenting opinion in the 1972 Supreme court case, Sierra Club v. Morton, paved the way for considering legal rights for the Earth, although the Sierra Club lost the case.

If granting legal rights to something as vague as nature seems strange, consider the legal rights granted to another intangible entity, the corporation, as exemplified by the United States Supreme Court's decision in the Citizens United case.

University of Southern California law professor Christopher Stone drew an analogy between corporate rights and environmental rights in the 2011 re-issue of his book "Should Trees Have Standing." Justice Douglas based his 1972 dissent on the first edition of Stone's book.

"The rights of nature are more like human rights than 'rights' of corporations, which are artificial legal entities holding rights created by courts," Sheehan said.

"Rights of humans and nature arise from the same place- our joint heritage shared through our co-evolution on, and citizenship of, the Earth," continued Sheehan. "But corporate 'rights' unfortunately have trampled on both human and environmental rights, particularly in the wake of Citizens United, which is increasingly co-opting our right to self-governance."

In the face of corporate power, environmental rights advocates push for fundamental changes in legal structures in order to put the long term health of the planet and its human inhabitants ahead of profits.

"Existing environmental laws (Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, etc.) treat nature as property, such that the owner of that property effectively has the right to destroy the nature that exists on his property," said Margil. "Similarly, slaves were treated as property under the law and a slave 'owner' had the right to destroy his 'property.'"

"Our existing structures of environmental law will not allow us to achieve anything close to true sustainability... in its place, we need to drive a fundamentally new legal structure forward," concluded Margil.