Rights of nature

Published November 16, 2019, 12:15 AM

by Charissa Luci-Atienza & Bernie Cahiles-Magkilat



Dr. Florangel Rosario Braid
Dr. Florangel Rosario Braid

Environmentalism’s next frontier is giving nature legal rights, a paradigm shift in especially in our country where our laws are centered on the human being, not on the environment. However, there is a growing movement around the world today which is seeking to expand the rights to demand protection  for nature – rivers, trees, and ecosystems – through laws that would provide them rights.

Recently, a coalition, the Philippine Misereor Partnersip Inc. (PNP), took the first step in preparing a draft bill which would confer legal personhood to nature,  by showing the connectedness between indigenous peoples and their ancestral domains. Macki Maderazo, PNP’s legal counsel, notes that when you say a tree or a river has a legal personality, a person can represent nature before a court of law and can seek damages for violence.  If successful, we shall join the Ecuador, Colombia, Bolivia, New Zealand, India, among a few of the pioneering countries, some states in the United States,  who have either “constitutionalized” these rights, and  the 90 or so countries that are seriously exploring ways of amending their environmental laws to integrate this concern. .

There are already examples of activism in this area which indicate that we may be ready to adopt changes in our environmental laws.  One example is the call for “Justice for Trees” for the “murdered 45 Baguio Pine Trees”  where a volunteer organization,  the Rehabilitation Action for Baguio (RAB) filed a Manifesto of support expressing  grave disappointment over dismissal by the prosecutor’s office of a complaint filed by Baguio City Mayor Benjamin Magalang against officials of the Gateluck Corporation for chemically inducing by slow death 45 trees in its property along Legarda Rd. in Baguio City.  It appears that last July 24, Mayor Magalang found out that holes were drilled at the base of each tree, into which a salt-like solution was injected thus causing the trees to die. The mayor charged them with 45 counts of violations against the city’s environmental codes and RA 11038, the Expanded National Integrated Protected Area System Act, and other pertinent environmental laws. If we had a law or even ordinance on “Rights of Nature,” a case like this could have been addressed much faster and perhaps more effectively.

What we are experiencing today – deforestation, destruction of coral reefs, soil degradation, exposure to toxic chemicals, hazardous wastes, flooding, are the consequences of benign neglect and the inadequacy of our environmental laws.  Boracay, Pasig River, Manila Bay, these are examples of ecosystems that could have been protected if we had a legal structure that is much more radical  than the present system. .

Ecuador, in 2008 was the first country to constitutionalize the rights of Nature or “Pacha Mama” when it stated that nature has the right to be respected and that its existence and the maintenance and regeneration of its life cycles, structure, and evolving process must be allowed. It was followed by Bolivia with its Law of Rights of Mother Earth.  Colombia’s Supreme Court in 2008 that the government must take action to protect the Colombia Amazon.  In 2018, India’s High Court declared that its animal (including avian and aquatic creatures) are legal entities with rights, duties, and liabilities like living person.  A 2017 law in New Zealand recognizes the legal personality of mountains and the seas which have rights and duties including property rights in its riverbed. In the United States, a  Pennsylvania borough passed a local ordinance recognizing rights of ecosystems, and in Toledo, Ohio, a Lake Erie Bill of Rights was passed that guaranteed the lake to exist, flourish, and evolve.  In Bangladesh, river Turag was recognized as a living entity with rights.

In the existing paradigm, we are asked to be faithful  stewards of our environment. If we have not been too successful in that role,  do you think we could do better as  spokespersons for the rights of Mother Nature – of the trees, rivers, seas, and mountains?

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