Rights to Nature vs Rights of Nature
During the World Parks Congress, I was fortunate enough to both present in and help organize a session on Green Justice. The session was meant to provide a forum for discourse about environmental justice issues, and we organized it around the idea of rights to nature. The session had a nice balance between theoretical policy interventions and more grounded local actions, both designed to bring about a more environmentally just world.
Leading environmental lawyers and academics presented information about how some countries have created laws explicitly stating their citizens right to a clean and healthy environment. I tried to balance that high-level discussion by presenting a tangible way that a more equitable and healthy world can be created, and my FES classmate Dana Baker added to the down-to-earth examples by speaking about her experiences working in public parks in some of New York City’s poorest neighborhoods.
My particular presentation was about the conversion of brownfields into public parks. Brownfields are previously developed but currently vacant, rundown, and often polluted sites. These sites, (dumps, old factories, empty warehouses, ect.) are almost always found in low income communities; communities that often have limited access to parks and nature. These two environmental injustices (the lack of access to parks for poor people, and the unequal burden caused by living next to brownfields), can both be reversed by converting these brownfields into green public parks. This has been done with great success in many places around the world.
While the discussion of people’s right to nature and to a clean environment was the main topic of the session, I found it especially interesting when the conversation shifted from peoples right to nature, to the rights that nature itself has. Do the birds and the bees have rights too? Before this session at the WPC I guess I had never really thought of other things having rights. Of course humans clearly state the things we are rightfully allowed to do, lines that even governments should not be allowed to cross, but what about extending the idea of rights to natural things. Do the forests and rivers have the right to breathe and flow? Do the worms or even mountains also have the right to a healthy environment?
Some say they should. New Zealand in particular has used the rights of nature as a way to preserve important ecosystems. The Kiwi government has gone so far as to extend legal personhood to the Whanganui River, giving it “rights and interests”.
While it may seem odd to thing of the river as a being deserving of rights, the native Maori have long thought of the river in that way, often stating “Ko au te awa, Ko te awa ko au ~ I am the river and the river is me”. The legal agreement recognizes the Whanganui and all of its tributaries as a single living entity, with ownership rights over its own river bed.
I’m not sure how granting forests protection under the bill of rights would change things here in the US, but it sure is interesting to think about. Heck, if we gave Walmart and Halliburton rights as human beings, is it all that far fetched to do the same for nature?