Human rights for nature?

Whilst the basic rights of many people are still waiting to be recognized, a next step seems to expand the concept of human rights to being applied outside mere human beings elsewhere. The humanization of nature has been around for a long time. Lately it has reared its head again in many corners of the world, gaining more traction than it did in the 1970’s when first brought forward. A while back it was heatedly discussed in Germany whether trees have feelings. The jury is still out on many things on that one.

On a recent visit to New Zealand I was fascinated to learn that last year the Whanganui river was declared a person under New Zealand´s domestic legislation and that the first ”rights of nature” law was passed in 2017 as well.

The river’s representatives form a committee involving, perhaps surprisingly, NGO’s and the government. This committee is given the mandate to define the rights the river has. Indigenous communities are often perceived as automatic defenders of those rights. Close as the relationship often is, there is of course variety in what kind of relationship communities have towards nature.

In New Zealand the law names the bodies responsible. Should this not be the case, there is room for interpretation as to who has the right to say what. It became apparent in the discussions I had with New Zealand stakeholders, that this approach is still a work in progress and opinions are as passionate as forest related discussions here in Finland. The issues are important. It probably is in the interest of the government to stop illegal and damaging acts.

The change from a natural resource property to some kind of human being sounds like a quantum leap from a sci-fi story. Defending the human rights of nature may be tricky, because whoever tries to excercise it is basically void of the mandate to do so. If the Whanganui river had the right to flow in a certain way, for example, then any change to its course would be a violation of its rights. It has been presented, that if these rights were not there, its legal guardians determine the positive content of its rights. It is theoretically possible that the river might one day argue for its course to be changed because that change is necessary for its survival.

The mighty river Ganges in India has human rights as well. This kind of thinking is not unique to rivers, though. Similar kinds of shifts have been seen for other natural resources in for example Ecuador and Bolivia.
In Ecuador, nature’s rights have been taken up to the level of having been written in the constitution. The rights are seen as positive, specifically related to ”upgrade” measures, e.g. restoring, regenerating and overall respecting nature. The mandate of defending them has been given to whoever wants to assume them and make a case of protecting nature’s rights. This means that all individuals, communities, peoples and nations can demand that Ecuadorian authorities enforce the rights of nature.

This, of course, brings up the question of what kind of interests the defender has and how various interests, economic and others, are to be reconciled.

The New Zealand formulation, which more closely resembles the American theoretical origins of the rights of nature in the 1970’s, is different from Ecuador and Bolivia’s model by naming specific guardians and not granting positive rights.

How will all this affect land use policy and decision making? The essential question remains: Who has the right to define and control vs. land use & property rights. What is the relationship with official protection and conservation decisions and this new way of thinking? The effects could be considerable. Whoever ”owns” the discussion and defines the concepts to be used is at an advantage and in fact usually leads.

Global experts are wary in their predictions of our common future. We need to be clever and creative to survive, but how is the question. Nine billion people’s well being will have to be secured by the use of scarce natural resources on a finite planet in a not so distant future. Food, fibre, water and energy production for basic human needs are all intertwined. As the growing pressures mount on the sustainable use of renewable natural resources to replace fossil fuels, it is fascinating to see how basic concepts are being rethought and expanded. The need to highlight and bring forward human rights has been, luckily, noted and reacted upon. The EU for example has started to assess the consideration to human rights as a standard part of defining legality in the Voluntary Partnership Agreements with forested and wood trading partner countries. Honduras and Guyana are the first countries to be assessed in their VPA-negotiations. There are many more paths to explore.

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