The Rights of Nature Part 1 – Review of the Legal Movement

By Clair Brown, Arthur Dahl, Yoshinobu Miyake, Sherrie Steiner, and Victoria W. Thoresen; G20 Interfaith Forum Working Group on the Environment

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The Rights of Nature “as a key global legal movement, instrumental in preserving and restoring the health of Nature for future generations” is a project promoted by the United Nations that seeks to secure the Rights of Nature globally.[1]

Summary of the doctrine

The “Rights of Nature” reorients how humans relate to nature from a relationship of exploitation to one of interdependence and equality. The right recognizes that ecosystems such as rivers, lakes, and mountains are entitled to legal personhood status. When nature bears legal rights similar to human beings, then it has the right to legal representation by an appointed guardian, who can file lawsuits against those who are causing environmental harm, including sea level rise, air and water pollution, deforestation, and extinction of species, along with extreme weather causing flooding and droughts and extreme heat. Part 1 of this essay will look into legal frameworks being utilized across the globe in efforts to protect nature’s rights.

Activities by nations and states[2]

A seminal law review article, Should Trees Have Standing, in 1972 by a law professor at the University of Southern California, proposed that nature has legal rights. This legal doctrine was used in a dissent by Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas in the case ​​Sierra Club v. Morton,[3] which sought to restrain the Federal government from approving a ski development in the Sequoia National Forest. Douglas argued “nature’s ecological equilibrium should lead to the conferral of standing upon environmental objects to sue for their own preservation.”

Since 1972, the concept of the Rights of Nature has been used in legislation, court rulings and constitutional amendments in many countries. Government actions have sought ecosystem protection through nature rights in Bangladesh, Bolivia, Canada, Colombia, Ecuador, France, India, Mexico, New Zealand, Pakistan, Spain and Uganda. Here are some examples of the lawsuits filed:

In 2008, Ecuador became the first country to implement the Rights of Nature, also called the Rights of Pachamama (Mother Earth). The constitutional provisions state: “Nature, or Pachamama, where life is reproduced and occurs, has the right to integral respect for its existence and for the maintenance and regeneration of its life cycles, structure, functions and evolutionary processes. All persons, communities, peoples, and nations can call upon public authorities to enforce the Rights of Nature.”[4] A lawsuit using the Rights of Nature provision was filed in 2011 by the Global Alliance for Rights of Nature (GARN) against a construction company for building a road across a river and dumping debris in the river. Although the Court ruled in favor of the river, the construction company ignored the ruling, and the government took no action.

In 2011, Bolivia passed a law granting nature equal rights to humans, called the Law of Mother Earth.[5]

In 2017, lawsuits were filed in New Zealand, Colombia, and India on behalf of four rivers and won some legal rights. The New Zealand case resulted in the Parliament passing The Te Awa Tupua Act, and appointing two guardians of the river that represented different stakeholders with diverse worldviews: one for the indigenous people and one for the Crown.

In the United States, several cities have sought legal rights for an ecosystem. In 2010 the City Council of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania unanimously passed an ordinance recognizing the Rights of Nature in its ban on fracking for shale gas. More recently in 2019, the City of Toledo, Ohio adopted the Lake Erie Bill of Rights. Farmers challenged this law, claiming the ordinance caused them liability from potential fertilizer runoff. The state of Ohio also challenged the lawsuit on the basis that the state is legally responsible for environmental regulation. In 2020, a federal judge ruled that the Lake Erie Bill of Rights was invalid because it was “unconstitutionally vague” and exceeded municipal powers.

In February 2021, in Canada two local Councils jointly recognized the Magpie River’s legal rights of personhood through the adoption of  resolutions, which recognized nine rights that can be represented by guardians.

Although these lawsuits help protect the environment, few are directly related to climate change, according to the Global Climate Litigation Report: 2020 Status Review by the United Nations Environment Programme with support from Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law. Here are five examples of climate lawsuits based on the rights of nature that are directly related to climate change.

United States:

In 2017, an environmental organization acting as guardians of the Colorado River Ecosystem filed a lawsuit against the State of Colorado, seeking recognition that the river is a “person” possessing “rights to exist, flourish, regenerate, be restored, and naturally evolve.” [Colorado River Ecosystem v. State of Colorado]


In 2018, a youth group filed a special constitutional claim (tutela) alleging that climate change is threatening their fundamental rights to a healthy environment, life, health, food, and water and harmed by the government allowing Amazon deforestation. The Supreme Court wrote:  “fundamental rights of life, health, the minimum subsistence, freedom, and human dignity are substantially linked and determined by the environment and the ecosystem.” The Court ordered the government to develop and implement policies to halt deforestation. [Future Generations v. Ministry of the Environment]


A class of children joined national organizations in filing a class action suit in the Supreme Court against the two local governments for their failure to protect environmentally sensitive wetlands. The plaintiffs asked the court to recognize the delta as an essential ecosystem for mitigating and adapting to climate change, and therefore a “subject of rights” that required a guardian to oversee the conservation with sustainable use of the wetlands. The complaint refers to nature rights laws passed in other countries, and the case is pending [Asociación Civil por la Justicia Ambiental v. Province of Entre Ríos, et al.]


A youth group filed a suit against Peru that charges the government with taking insufficient steps to address climate change. The complaint seeks the recognition of the Peruvian Amazon with many natural rights—protection, conservation, maintenance and restoration; therefore the environmental degradation in the Peruvian Amazon is unconstitutional. The plaintiffs ask the court to order the national and regional governments to develop and implement policies to reduce net Amazon deforestation to zero by 2025. The case is pendin [Alvarez et al v. Peru].


On April 15, 2021, the Supreme Court of Pakistan upheld a Punjab government decision that prevents the construction of any new or expansion of cement plants in environmentally fragile zones. The Supreme Court decided that cement plants would continue to deplete groundwater and other harmful environmental degradation. The Court recognized “the precautionary principle” in which the government protects the rights to life, sustainability, and dignity of communities in the fragile zones surrounding the cement plants. [G. Khan Cement Company v. Government of Pakistan]

Additional Commitments to the Rights of Nature

In the US, more than three-dozen localities in states, including Ohio, Colorado, Pennsylvania and Minnesota, and Florida, have enacted Rights of Nature laws. In some states, communities have joined together to make the rights of nature part of the state constitution. However, the rights of nature law have yet to be litigated and upheld in Federal and state courts.[6]

A coalition of more than 50 countries, known as the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and for People, is committed to protecting 30% of the Earth’s land and waters by 2030. Known as the 30 X 30 target, the goal of increased protected areas is to reduce both biodiversity loss and greenhouse gas emissions.[7] The Convention on Biological Diversity has adopted this target as part of its Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework approved in December 2022.

These examples demonstrate a variety of legal approaches in being used in the lawsuits, which are in the early stage of building a legal foundation for the rights of nature.[8] We should expect a variety of outcomes that reflect how a case is framed, the claimants’ interests and requests, and the country’s legal and cultural norms. As both the Courts and plaintiffs learn from the lawsuits, and address questions and concerns as the lawsuits are decided, we should expect our knowledge and expertise to grow and the lawsuits to become more capable in codifying and enforcing the rights of nature.

Another potential legal foundation for the rights of nature comes from action at the United Nations. On 28 July 2022, the United Nations General Assembly approved a resolution acknowledging that an environment that is healthy, clean and sustainable is a universal human right. This should now allow authorities around the world to take urgent action to ensure all people have access to a safe, sustainable environment.

On 29 March 2023 the UN General Assembly adopted by consensus a resolution seeking an advisory opinion on climate change and human rights from the International Court of Justice (ICJ). This is a milestone moment in a campaign launched over two years ago by the Pacific Island Students Fighting Climate Change (PISFCC), in a law school classroom in Vanuatu. It was taken forward as a diplomatic endeavor by the Government of Vanuatu who worked alongside a core group of 18 nations to prepare the first draft of the resolution, and ultimately won the backing of over 120 countries before it was tabled in the UN. The adoption by consensus for an advisory opinion from the ICJ is unprecedented. An advisory opinion from the ICJ will provide clarity to States on their obligations under international law to protect their people, now and in the future, from climate impacts and their responsibility in upholding fundamental human rights.[9]

Part 1 Conclusion

A legal approach to protecting nature and the environment and pushing governments to increase their commitment to action on climate change is being used increasingly, as these examples demonstrate, when accepted agreements fail to be implemented because of lack of political will, vested interests, powerful lobbies and corruption. Public opinion is already far ahead of political leaders in the desire for more effective environmental governance.[10]

Since public support is so important to building consensus on action for the rights of nature, even when personal sacrifices are required in the common interest, faith-based organizations with their significant followings around the world can help to build momentum for such action, drawing on the significance of nature in their own teachings. Part 2 of this essay will address the beliefs and roles of faith groups in relation to the rights of nature in further depth.

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Clair Brown, PhD, is Professor of Economics and Director of the Center for Work, Technology and Society at the University of California, Berkeley. Brown has published research on many aspects of how economies function, including understanding inequality, mitigating the climate emergency and improving sustainability, and evaluating the quality of life and the standard of living. She works with environmental justice and faith-based groups on climate policies that reduce carbon emissions in a way that improves the lives of vulnerable populations and meets the Paris goal of under 1.5 0 C temperature rise.

Arthur Lyon Dahl is President of the International Environment Forum, and a retired Deputy Assistant Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), with 50 years’ international experience in environment and sustainability. His most recent focus has been on global governance and UN reform.

Rt. Rev. Yoshinobu Miyake serves as a board member of Religions for Peace Japan, the Chair of the International Shinto Studies Association, and the Vice President of the UN Association Japan Kansai Capital.

Sherrie M. Steiner, PhD, is assistant professor of sociology at Purdue University Fort Wayne and the official historian of the G20 Interfaith Forum. Dr. Steiner’s research focus is on religious soft power, environmental sociology and improvement of public health. This research is conducted transnationally in relation to the G20 Interfaith Forum and at the community level through collaborative relationships with public not-for-profit organizations. Dr. Steiner teaches courses on religion, development, social movements, and the environment.

Victoria W. Thoresen is an educator, researcher and world citizen. She holds the position of UNESCO Chair for Education about Sustainable Lifestyles at Inland University in Norway. Thoresen has, for many years, been involved in initiatives taken by the United Nations and its agencies to further greater equity and sustainable development around the world. In addition to being a teacher trainer, Thoresen has written and edited professional literature and has been a key-note speaker at international conferences on issues such as education, conscientious consumption, behaviour change, and social responsibility. An avid reader, Thoresen admires fiction that unveils the hopes and longings of the human soul. She finds inspiration in Nature, in art and in the vision of the future described in the writings of the Bahá’í Faith.

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[2] These examples are from