I think that nature should have its own rights

by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor

The new Poland (Issue III/2021)


New Zealand's Whanganui River has had the same rights as a human since 2017. Photo: Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images

I think we should dare to give nature a legal identity, complete with the rights of a person. This would focus our attention on its right to wholeness and health, helping to end our horrific abuse which has culminated in the planetary crisis we call ‘climate change.’ Some enlightened pockets of the world have already taken steps in this direction. For example in March 2017, the 290-kilometre Whanganui River, in New Zealand was finally given a legal identity, like the rights of a person, in the constitution. Finally, after a 140-year litigatory process, it has been enshrined in the Te Awa Tupua (Whanganui River Claims Settlement) Act 2017, which reads: “Section 12: “Te Awa Tupua is an indivisible and living whole, comprising the Whanganui River from the mountains to the sea, incorporating all its physical and metaphysical elements.” In other words, the river now legally owns itself. 

Ecuador has also inscribed the rights of nature into its constitution, declaring in 2008 that: “We… hereby decide to build a new form of public coexistence, in diversity and in harmony with nature, to achieve [a] good way of living.” Bolivia prompted the United Nations to earmark the ‘International Mother Earth Day’ on April 22. Then, in 2011, Bolivia passed the world's first law granting all nature equal rights to humans. The Law of Mother Earth was inspired by the indigenous Andean spiritual world view which places the nature and the mother earth, known as the Pachamama, at the centre of all life. 

“For how long are we to live out hollowed-out lives abstracted from the humus that is the physical ground of our longing and belonging? Must the allegiance of our children be given to virtual realities while outside their windows the winds howl for our attention?”

I think it is high time that other countries follow their lead. Humanity needs to reflect on what means to be human on a planet that is exhausted from the pain that humanity has visited upon it. We need to ditch the ghastly cult of extraction and exploitation that assumes (pretends) that nature’s resources are limitless. For how long are we to live out hollowed-out lives abstracted from the humus that is the physical ground of our longing and belonging? Must the allegiance of our children be given to virtual realities while outside their windows the winds howl for our attention? 

It is time to get rid of our lust to subdivide, apportion and title-deed landscapes, turning the treasury of the environment into an objectified piece property that can be traded with for extra coins in a bank account.Instead, enshrining the personhood of nature is an invitation to humans to revel in being an intrinsic part of ‘nature’, a word which in most non-European cultures, is not a separate entity but rather is synonymous with the universe and life itself. The process might restore wonder and awe into the human quest. It might inspire a global movement of wilderness schools, located outdoors, and lessons such as those offered by James ole Kinyaga of Il Ngwesi, and Ezekiel ole Katato of Kajiado, of reading the book of nature. 

Imagine the impact of a deeper relationship with nature, and synchronously, with each other. It might even shift our enthrallment with the grand necropolises we valorise as ‘cities.’ Awakening our interconnectedness would help us relearn how to step into life and landscape with tenderness. It would raise fresh questions, upturn our assumptions, move us on from the fantasy of exceptionalism that marginalises non-human nature. 

By shifting our approach, the environmental crisis becomes intimate, and is no longer treated as an other-world /other-people thingummy. Resolving this is one of the ways of salvaging our own living spirits. Our frayed and split attention would find spaces to retreat to, to encounter stillness. Don’t we need a refuge from the cacophony and chaos of the legions competing for our minds, consciousness and thoughts? Couldn’t we at least try to scramble out of the gloom-infused, Plato Cave of shadows of complicated modernities to rediscover, once again, an innermost sense of the sun warming up our souls again?

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