Mother Nature’s Right to Live

Te Urewara National Park

Sep 9 2016 (The Daily Star, Bangladesh) - In 2008, Ecuador codified the principle of Rights of Nature in its Constitution, recognising that ecosystems have an inalienable right to exist and flourish. “Nature, or Pacha Mama, where life is reproduced and occurs, has the right to integral respect for its existence and for the maintenance and regeneration of its life cycles, structure, functions and evolutionary processes,” reads Article 71 of the Constitution. Not only does the Constitution set out in detail the rights of nature, it states that “persons, communities, peoples and nations can call upon public authorities to enforce the rights of nature.”

Article 72 on the other hand states that “In those cases of severe or permanent environmental impact, including those caused by the exploitation of non-renewable natural resources, the State shall establish the most effective mechanisms to achieve the restoration and shall adopt adequate measures to eliminate or mitigate harmful environmental consequences.”

Going a step further, New Zealand has now granted legal personhood to its Te Urewara National Park. In effect, what this means is that now the national park, a verdant forested landscape, possesses the same rights and powers as that of a citizen. Like the Constitution of Ecuador, this legislation gives stronger rights to nature: to protect its rights, cases can be filed on its behalf. The same is true for the Whanganui River. And, as should be, nobody, not even the government can ‘own’ them. As Pita Sharples, former minister of Maori Affairs put it: “This is a profound alternative to the human presumption of sovereignty over the natural world.”

As environmental concerns over the world grow, the examples of Ecuador and New Zealand come as a sweet surprise. The balance between consumption and exploitation of nature and its preservation have been strongly on the side of the former, and with passing time the threat of harming biodiversity and disrupting the ecosystem continues to grow to epic proportions. A recent study by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), which involved 1,203 scientists, hundreds of scientific institutions and more than 160 governments, unequivocally stated that already the degradation of natural resources worldwide is outpacing the nature’s ability to absorb that damage (Humans damaging the environment faster than it can recover, UN find, The Guardian). It goes without saying that the need to act to protect them is crucial, now more than ever.

Going back to the case of New Zealand, the legal status was a result of agreements between the government, and the Maori groups over guardianship of the land. The New York Times quoted Chris Finlayson, New Zealand’s attorney general, as saying: “In their worldview, ‘I am the river and the river is me’. Their geographic region is part and parcel of who they are.” From years of debate, came the agreement to grant the natural land a legal status.

Now, the concept of legal personhood granted to a national park may seem absurd to many – how could nature assume the rights of a person? But, if corporations, which are profit driven, can be given legal personhood and rights, the question is why should nature and the ecosystem not be given the same rights. They are surely more important for the survival of the species.

It’s unfortunate that where a few countries are willing to go to such extremes over concerns for their natural environment, Bangladesh today stands on the eve of what might possibly be irreversible damage to the Sundarbans. Surely, no one expects the home of the Bengal Tiger to be granted a legal personhood with rights and dignity any time soon, but can we in good conscience get behind this project, no matter how bountiful be its return in developmental terms?

The writer is a member of the editorial team, The Daily Star.

This story was originally published by The Daily Star, Bangladesh

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