Forty-five years ago, Christopher Stone, professor of law in California, wrote a legal article provocatively titled “Should trees have standing?”, in which he argued that natural entities should have legal personhood. His idea received attention in the 1972 US Supreme Court case Sierra Club v. Morton. In that case, the environmental NGO Sierra Club, sought to block the development of a ski resort in the Mineral King valley of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
The NGO lost because the court ruled it could not allege any injury: only the forest was injured, but not the plaintiff, which therefore could not prevail. However, Justice William O Douglas, citing Stone’s article, issued a dissenting opinion arguing that “Contemporary public concern for protecting
nature's ecological equilibrium should lead to the conferral of standing upon environmental objects to sue for their own preservation. This suit would therefore be more properly labeled as Mineral King v. Morton”. Although, Douglas’ dissenting opinion called attention to the advantages of legal personhood for nature, the impact of this idea seemed limited and Stone’s proposal never reached the mainstream.
This idea has made a resurgence in the 21st century. During the past decade, numerous jurisdictions have recognized some type of rights for nature. In the 2000s, several South American countries elected leaders with a strong agenda for social justice that stemmed from critical indigenous perspectives. An increased political involvement and representation of indigenous communities meant that a less anthropocentric and more ecocentric worldview than the Western worldview could now be translated into political decisions.
The consequence was that in 2008 Ecuador adopted a constitution granting rights to nature and in 2010 Bolivia enacted a law recognizing the rights of Mother Earth. In parallel, indigenous communities in New Zealand succeeded in having rights granted to rivers through an agreement with the government of New Zealand. Communities in the US have passed local regulations recognizing legal rights of nature beginning in 2006. In 2017, Indian courts granted status of living entities to the Himalayan Gangotri and Yamunotri glaciers and human status to the Ganga and Yamuna Rivers.
In 2018, the Supreme Court of Colombia issued a ruling making the Colombian Amazon Region a subject of rights, which include the rights to “legal protection, preservation, maintenance and restoration”.
Evidence suggests that existing environmental laws may not be able to fully preserve nature from systematic destruction. Our own research has shown that laws are often ineffective. By treating the issue of ecological destruction as a matter for policy debate rather than as an infringement of rights, existing environmental protection laws may be hindered from achieving their goal. By framing the protection of the natural world instead as a rights issue, nature conservation may become more effective.
Our ongoing research explores whether and how recognizing rights of nature may contribute to nature conservation and attaining the UN 2030 sustainable development goals. We are currently engaged in mapping some of the questions important to the effectiveness of rights of nature in various legal systems from both legal and ecological perspectives. These questions include what natural entities rights, what those rights are, how these rights are enforced, and how nature’s rights will be weighed against human and corporate rights.