The campaign to give nature a legal status – POLITICO

1685880079 The campaign to give nature a legal status – POLITICO | ltc-a

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Imagine a court hearing where the plaintiff is not a person, but a damaged river, lake or mountain.

That’s the view of a movement of conservationists – gaining traction across the continent – who believe that giving nature basic legal rights can help protect it from threats such as deforestation, biodiversity loss, chemical pollution and climate change.

« We usually think of nature as an object » that we « need » like a swimming pool or natural park, said Eduardo Salazar, a lawyer involved in the successful push to grant legal rights to the Mar Menor, a large saltwater lagoon. in Murcia, in southeastern Spain, which is polluted by the excessive use of nitrogenous fertilizers by neighboring farmers.

Giving an ecosystem legal status « on an equal footing » with individuals can help change social attitudes toward nature, he said, and give it important new protections.

The lagoon last year became the first ecosystem on the continent to achieve a status comparable to that of a person following a campaign supported by more than 600,000 people.

Activists are now trying to replicate the model elsewhere.

In Poland, a group of activists this week will complete the last stage of a March of 43 days along the Oder River aimed to draw attention to their campaign to grant the polluted ecosystem – which runs along the German-Polish border – the legal status of a person.

After a massive die-off killed thousands of fish in the Oder last summer, activists fear the ecosystem could be headed for another ecological disaster, pointing to Poland’s inability to curb industrial emissions thought to have contributed to the ‘accident.

« There is a lot of suffering going on in this river, » said Przemek Siewior, a climate activist who joined the march. Giving legal rights to the fragile ecosystem is « a great tool for people to try to save it, » he said.

A ‘voice’ for nature

The so-called rights of the movement of nature, which originated in the United States about 50 years agohas gained ground in recent years due to growing attention to the importance of nature protection in the fight against climate change and biodiversity loss.

An increasing number of countries, including Uganda, Ecuador AND New Zeland — have laws granting legal rights to ecosystems and court rulings India AND Colombia they recognized these rights and stressed the government’s duty to protect them. Just last month, Panama he gave rights to sea turtles in an effort to protect them from pollution and poaching.

In Europe, activists hope to ride the coattails of the Mar Menor movement, with citizens’ initiatives pushing for similar recognition for the North Sea in the Netherlands and in the Loire River in France, for example.

Loire river bed in Loireauxence completely dried up due to extreme heat in September 2022 | Damien Meyer/AFP via Getty Images

At the heart of the movement is a call for a fundamental rethinking of how people relate to and understand ecosystems. But more tangibly, activists also highlight the importance of ensuring ecosystems can be represented in court.

In New Zealand, granting of legal personality to the Whanganui River it was seen as a vital step to ensure that the indigenous Māori community living in its vicinity have a greater say in the health of the ecosystem.

THE Spanish law giving the Mar Menor the right to “exist as an ecosystem and to evolve naturally” guarantees that it will be represented by a caretaker group, made up of scientists, local politicians and citizens.

Inspired by the Spanish example, last month’s movement of the Oder River published a bill to protect the ecosystem that would include establishing a 15-person committee to represent the river. Three would be nominated by the state, four by municipalities and eight by NGOs; a group of 10 scientists would advise the committee.

That structure would « give the Oder River a democratic representation » and a « voice it currently does not have, » said Gaweł Andrzejewski, the coordinator of the Oder River march.

The trial is still in its early stages: Drafted by a lawyer in collaboration with civil society, the bill is primarily intended to « stir up and start the conversation » with politicians and NGOs, Andrzejewski said.

Practical impact

Critics argue that such representation is largely symbolic and doubt it can do a lot to help protect and restore ecosystems.

Creating committees to represent an ecosystem gives « empowerment to certain people » to make decisions about what is or isn’t in their best interests, said Michael Livermore, a law professor at the University of Virginia who specializes in environmental law, among others subjects. .

But there is no guarantee that they will make the right choice or that it will be heard. “I think part of the problem with a legal right is that you still run into problems, like what’s best for an ecosystem? And who will make that decision?” he said.

In Ecuador, for example, environmental activists challenged a large-scale mining project located in one of the most biodiverse areas on the planet, claiming it violated the rights of nature, but the court ruled against them, arguing that the government’s interests in exploiting the resource were important enough to prevail over the rights of nature discussion.

Furthermore, giving legal status to ecosystems does not guarantee protection — concession the legal personality of India’s Ganges River in 2017 did not stop them deteriorationFor example.

Livemore he claims there are more efficient alternatives to nature conservation, such as preserving people’s rights to organize, providing protection to environmental organizations, or improving decision-making processes to empower indigenous communities.

So far, companies have remained relatively quiet about the movement: for Livermore, this is a sign that giving rights to nature is not a big challenge.

« If it’s such a powerful tool to protect the environment, why are the special interests that care about it, who would be against very strong environmental protections, why aren’t they fighting it? » he said.