Legally speaking, nature is usually property that can be bought and sold by individuals, organizations, and the government. Laws may give a property’s owners the right to protect it, but they don’t give any rights to the land itself.
However, as Politico reported, a growing movement seeks to give nature its own legal status — making it legally similar to a person — so that ecosystems can “fight” against polluters and exploiters in court.
What is the ‘rights of nature’ movement?
According to Politico, this movement began in the U.S. about 50 years ago. Its goal is to grant rights to natural areas such as forests, bodies of water, and wildlife. To achieve this, these areas may be legally declared people — giving them the same rights as people in a country — or they may have other protections specifically granted by local laws.
Recently, Spain’s Mar Menor, a saltwater lagoon being damaged by runoff from local farms, received the right “to exist as an ecosystem and to evolve naturally.” The lagoon will have its own group of representatives that can make decisions for it and protect it from future pollution.
Why do people want nature to have legal rights?
Giving legal rights to nature ensures that natural areas, which previously had no voice in court, can now challenge (via representatives) the actions of people and businesses that damage them. This grants immediate protection from environmental damage that could have long-term effects.
Also, this approach often means labeling a piece of nature as legally a “person,” which Eduardo Salazar, a lawyer involved in the Mar Menor case, told Politico might change the way people see our environment.
“We usually think about nature as an object” that “serves us,” Salazar said, adding that putting an ecosystem on “the same level” as a person could shift that attitude.
Humanity depends on the environment for conditions that allow us to live and thrive. For example, trees — particularly in rainforests — produce tons of the oxygen we need to breathe, and wetlands are crucial habitats for young fish that grow into a food source.
But when a company harms these natural resources, it is often hard to prove how that will harm people, and the company isn’t legally held accountable. Giving the resources themselves rights and protections will also protect the people who rely on them.
Is it enough?
Critics said that giving the environment rights may not really protect it.
“I think part of the issue with a legal right is that you still run into problems, like what’s best for an ecosystem?” Michael Livermore, a professor of law at the University of Virginia, told Politico. “And who’s going to make that decision?”
Instead, Livermore said he believes that it’s better to further empower people, not nature itself. That could mean protecting people’s rights to protest or working with Indigenous communities are more efficient ways to keep nature safe.
Join our free newsletter for cool news and cool tips that make it easy to help yourself while helping the planet.