The Current

Extending legal rights to nature could help counter biodiversity collapse, says environmental lawyer

A report from the World Wildlife Fund suggests global animal populations have plummeted by an average of 69 per cent between 1970 and 2018.

WWF report finds 69 per cent decrease in global populations of monitored wildlife between 1970 and 2018

Experts says that one way to stop drivers of biodiversity loss is by changing the current legal system to recognize the 'rights' of nature. (Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

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Researchers are considering every option to turn around decreasing wildlife populations — including extending legal rights to nature.

"There's a movement to recognize that nature shouldn't be treated as just our property, but instead should have basic fundamental rights, just as humans have rights and just as, for better or worse, corporations have rights," said environmental lawyer Grant Wilson of firm Earth Law Center in Durango, Colo.

At the heart of this movement is environmental "personhood." While humans are afforded basic protections like a right to exist and a right to liberty, "as property, nature has none of these protections," Wilson told The Current's Matt Galloway.

"So the rights of nature seeks to, in many cases, extend personhood or rights-based protections to rivers, forests, lakes and mountains."

Wilson's quotes come off the back of a new report by the World Wide Fund for Nature. Using data from the Zoological Society of London, the WWF found that global populations of monitored mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish plummeted by an average of 69 per cent between 1970 and 2018.

Andrea Reid, an assistant professor with the University of British Columbia's Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries and a citizen of Nisga'a Nation, wrote a chapter in the report focused on Indigenous leadership in conservation.

She said that she's spoken to many elders working in fishing systems in British Columbia who said they've experienced a change in access to salmon populations in they're lifetimes.

She said these population drops are felt especially hard by Indigenous communities because "it's connected to our languages, our stories, our ceremonies, our practices, our laws."

"This is a really culturally significant fish, and the impacts of declining access in freshwater systems has huge consequences for us," she told Galloway.

2020 saw the lowest return of sockeye salmon in B.C.'s Fraser River since record keeping began in 1893. (Chris Corday)

Criminalizing ecocide

One way to stop drivers of biodiversity loss, according to Wilson, is by changing the current legal system.

"There's this shortcoming of our current legal system in which we sort of allow nature to perpetually decline," he said. "We're never actually regenerating nature to health, but sort of allowing it to exist in this grey area between existence and collapse."

That's why he believes extending the right to existence and restoration to nature is important.

"A right to restoration for a river would mean that we have to start looking at ways to restore salmon populations to allow for natural flows, as one example," he said.

One example of this in action can be seen in Ecuador, which became the first country to recognize the rights of nature in its constitution in 2008.

In 2017, Ecuador granted state-owned mining company Empresa Nacional Minera two mining concessions, along with the necessary environmental permits needed to mine within Los Cedros cloud forest, a protected area known for its exceptional biodiversity.

But in 2018, local authorities in the region filed a constitutional remedy to stop all mining activity within Los Cedros. Three years later, "the constitutional court said this forest has a right to exist, to be restored," said Wilson.

This movement isn't limited to one country, though. Wilson said there's a global movement to make ecocide — "a crime against the Earth itself" — an international crime under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court.

"There is an emerging definition … and basically, it would be severe or widespread harms to the environment and would give us a tool to prosecute the worst offenders of environmental harms."

LISTEN: How Indigenous science could help tackle the sustainability and diversity crisis

Indigenous knowledge systems

Wilson said extending personhood to nature doesn't mean corporations stop building products. Rather, it's about having "a relationship of reciprocity and regeneration with the natural world."

"This is something that Indigenous peoples across the world have always understood: that we can take, but we have to give back as well," he added.

Reid said policies and practices that "really embrace the whole of these systems and that don't exclude people from the conversation of how we take care of the world around us" need to be put in place, especially here in Canada.

"For so long, we've been, as a country, trying to promote conservation narratives alongside economic ones," she said. "Often, those priorities, they work in opposition of one another in certain circumstances."

"So we need to be really creative in the solutions that we bring forward — but we're not really willing to consider a lot of conservation-oriented practices and thinking at any kind of economic cost."

She added that she'd like to see Indigenous sovereignty of nature, such as the restoration of Indigenous peoples' governance over the fish, be part of the conversation. 

"There are knowledge systems, there are relationships that have been built across generations that could really lend a tremendous amount of insight into doing things in a way that they once were, that allowed these populations to really thrive," she said.

Produced by Niza Lyapa Nondo, Paul MacInnis and Samira Mohyeddin.

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