Andreas Späth

Rights for rivers and mountains?

2010-11-10 07:55

Should nature and its constituent parts - animals, plants, rivers and valleys - have legally recognised rights comparable to those of humans?

Not too long ago nobody who mattered in the world (ie mostly rich white males) would have dreamed of considering women as being equal to men or black people as being people at all. Today, these concepts are well entrenched human rights, recognised and defended by all but the most barbaric throwbacks.

These days, very few of the people who matter in the world (ie mostly rich white males) would seriously consider extending legal rights to nature. But so-called Earth rights are gradually forcing themselves onto the global enviro-political agenda.

South Africans should be at the forefront of the debate. It was a Cape Town lawyer, Cormac Cullinan, who in 2002 published Wild Law: A Manifesto for Earth Justice, which remains the seminal book on the topic. Cullinan has been instrumental in helping to disseminate the concept of Earth rights and turning it into a lived reality internationally, but you’re much more likely to have heard of him if you’re Bolivian than if you’re a Saffer.

The ideas behind Earth rights aren’t complicated, but for most of us they will require a major shift in mindset. Our planet as a whole is conceived of as a self-regulating, self-sustaining community of interrelated and interdependent natural entities that includes human beings, rather than simply as a collection of individual components which humans are entitled to exploit for their exclusive benefit.

The basis for this way of looking at the world is not some New Age tree-hugging esoterica, but sound scientific, ecological reasoning. The long-term survival of a complex, integrated, living system is crucially dependent on an equilibrated balance between all of its constituent parts. If humans continue to insist on dominating, polluting and unsustainably exploiting the larger natural system of which we are a part, we will ultimately be responsible for its destruction and for our own demise. Earth rights are an attempt to formally and legally balance the rights and responsibilities of humans against those of the other members of the natural community that makes up our planet.

In recent times these ideas have started to gain international prominence. In 2008, Ecuador became the first country in the world to adopt a constitution that recognises the rights of nature and April of this year saw the first World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in Bolivia at which Earth rights took centre stage.

Faced with the threat of climate change, but frustrated by the lack of political will and action from developed countries and the dismal performance of international agreements like the Kyoto Protocol and the Copenhagen Accord, more than 30 000 participants from 140 countries produced a draft for a Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth and a People’s Agreement which were subsequently submitted to the UN by the Bolivian government.

The Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth, in the drafting of which Cullinan played a leading role, asserts that humans are members of an indivisible, self-regulating community of interrelated beings”, each of which has an inherent right to water, clean air, health, freedom from contamination, pollution, toxic or radioactive waste and detrimental genetic modification. It asserts that humans have an obligation to act in accordance with these rights.

The proposals from the World People’s Conference go far beyond the weak rhetoric of Copenhagen, demanding a 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emission in developed countries by 2017, a one degree limit on global temperature increase during this century, payment of climate debts and compensation to developing countries, the establishment of a Tribunal of Climate and Environmental Justice and a rejection of carbon markets as a mechanism for dealing with climate change. Capitalism, as a system premised on endless growth on a finite planet, was identified as incompatible with life itself and an underlying structural cause of climate change and environmental degradation.

Call me an idiot (again), but I for one hope that Earth rights grow from the militant groundswell they represent today into a universal principle to stand alongside human rights before it’s too late.

- Andreas has a PhD in geochemistry and manages Lobby Books, the independent book shop at Idasa’s Cape Town Democracy Centre. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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