MERCERSBURG, PA, USA: In November, in an extraordinary decision, Colombia’s Constitutional Court declared that the Atrato River basin possesses rights to “protection, conservation, maintenance, and restoration.” The decision is only now being made public.
The Court’s ruling comes in a case brought to address the significant degradation of the Atrato River basin from mining, impacting nature and indigenous peoples.
Declaring that the river has rights comes after thousands of years of history in which nature has been treated as “property” or “right-less” under the law. Much like women, indigenous peoples, and slaves have been treated as property under the law, without legal rights, so today do legal systems treat nature. Under this system, environmental laws regulate human use of nature, resulting in the decline of species and ecosystems worldwide, and the acceleration of climate change.
Transforming nature to be considered as rights-bearing – and thus in possession of legally enforceable rights – is part of the growing “Rights of Nature” movement. The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) has been at the forefront of this movement, partnering with communities and governments in developing the world’s first Rights of Nature laws.
The first law was passed in Tamaqua Borough, Pennsylvania, in 2006. Today, dozens of communities in 10 states in the U.S. have enacted Rights of Nature laws. CELDF assisted in drafting the first Rights of Nature constitutional provisions, which were promulgated in the Ecuador Constitution in 2008.
The November decision in Colombia comes ahead of a March 2017 decision in India, where a state High Court found that the Ganges River and other ecosystems were “legal persons” with certain rights. In addition – as the Colombia Court refers to in its decision – it comes as a settlement between the Maori people and the government of New Zealand is finalized. In that settlement, the Whanganui River is recognized as having personhood rights.
The Colombia Constitutional Court explained the need to move away from this human dominating system, writing:
“(I)t is the human populations that are interdependent of the natural world – and not the opposite – and that they must assume the consequences of their actions and omissions with the nature. It is a question of understanding this new sociopolitical reality with the aim of achieving a respectful transformation with the natural world and its environment, as has happened before with civil and political rights…Now is the time to begin taking the first steps to effectively protect the planet and its resources before it is too late…”
The Colombia Court further explained, that, “(P)olicies and legislation have emphasized access to economic use and exploitation to the detriment of the protection of the rights of the environment and of the communities.”
The Court ordered a number of steps to be taken, including establishing a joint guardianship for the Atrato River basin. The guardians will be a representative from the national government and a representative of the indigenous people living in the basin.
Further, the Court is requiring the establishment of a restoration plan for the river basin, to be overseen by the guardians, as well as requiring baseline studies and plans for recovery and implementation of protective measures in the basin.
Mari Margil, CELDF’s Associate Director who heads the organization’s International Center for the Rights of Nature explained, “The Court’s decision is an important step forward in moving to legal systems which protect the rights of nature, rather than regulate human use of nature. As the Court explained, to protect nature for future generations, it’s time to move away from legal systems in which humans are the ‘dominator of nature.’”
CELDF has been working in Colombia with the indigenous Raizal people to advance the Rights of Nature to protect their ancestral lands on the San Andres Archipelago. “The Court’s decision is a critical step forward to empower the Raizal people to protect the rights of their communities and nature,” Margil stated.
The Colombia and India court decisions, as well as the Rights of Nature laws that have been passed comes with a growing recognition around the world that environmental laws premised on regulating the use of nature, are unable to protect nature. Margil explained, “The collapse of ecosystems and species, as well as the acceleration of climate change, are clear indications that a fundamental change in the relationship between humankind and the natural world is necessary.”
About the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) & the International Center for the Rights of Nature
The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund’s mission is to build sustainable communities by assisting people to assert their right to local self-government and the rights of nature. CELDF’s International Center for the Rights of Nature is partnering with communities and organizations in countries around the world to advance the rights of nature.
Today, CELDF is partnering with communities and organizations across the United States, as well as in Nepal, India, Australia, Sweden, and other countries to advance rights of nature legal frameworks.
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