New Pathways for Old Wisdom: Mari Margil on the Rights of Nature

The inherent autonomy of the natural world is old wisdom — an unspoken truth that Indigenous communities have held for millennia — but it’s now being threatened by an extractive economy and the laws that condone it. As global society accelerates toward irreversible damage to our climate, people are fighting for the legal recognition of the rights of nature.

Mari Margil, Executive Director of the Center for Democratic and Environmental Rights (CDER), is one of the leaders guiding the movement and codifying a new pathway for how humans relate to the natural world. In this interview, Mari speaks on the challenges to her work and how anyone can get involved.

Watch Mari’s keynote address with her colleague Thomas Linzey at the Bioneers 2020 Conference here.

You often refer to Ecuador, the first country to codify the rights of nature into their constitution, as leading by example. How have you seen this struggle evolve since then?

Mari Margil

Ecuador’s Constitutional Court has recently selected a handful of cases related to the rights of nature to provide “content” to the rights of nature. This is a very important step. We recently testified before the Court and submitted an amicus brief in one of the cases, in which we make the argument that the rights of nature provides a stronger level of environmental protection than traditional environmental laws.

In addition, we have submitted proposals for reform of existing environmental laws to have them protect the rights of nature, which the Biodiversity Commission of Ecuador’s National Assembly included in its new report. The report is the first draft of legislation being provided to the full Assembly for its consideration.

How does the rights of nature movement relate to the current climate crisis? What gives you hope as we move forward?

The rights of nature movement is very important with climate – and we are building a right to a healthy climate provisions into new rights of nature laws. In places like Nepal, for instance, we are working to advance a right of the Himalayas to a healthy climate – the Himalayas are the fastest warming mountain range on earth. This is shifting the understanding of climate change from simply a human problem to a problem that all of nature faces. And with that, that this is a human and nature’s rights crisis. 

What are some of the biggest obstacles you’ve encountered in the legal struggle to recognize rights of the natural world? 

There are many that seek to continue with business as usual, in terms of how humans have treated nature – which has been one of use and exploitation, with environmental laws legalizing harm of nature. The consequences are many, including the destruction of ecosystems, accelerating species extinction, and of course, climate change. The status quo cannot hold. The struggle for change comes up against the powers that be that don’t want change, because they profit and grow powerful off of the current system.

How can the individuals reading this article contribute to the rights of nature movement, in the context of their own communities?

It’s really just about helping ourselves understand how the existing system works. It treats nature as existing for human use. Our environmental laws are protecting our use of nature. That’s led to profound impacts globally.

People who aren’t lawyers, academics, or scientists have moved initiatives forward in their own communities and on a national level. We share those stories, do workshops, and meet with people one-on-one to talk through these concepts and what’s happening. We discuss how others are moving for a change, developing strategies and learning how to answer tough questions. 

Everybody starts in that same place of the fundamental sense that something is wrong and something needs to shift. I take great hope and inspiration from that because people are doing something that’s really difficult. People are willing to step outside their comfort zone because they know something terrible is happening to the planet, and we need to do something really dramatic to make change.

I think people should take hope knowing that other regular Joes just like them are doing something, that they can do it too, and that they don’t need to be any kind of professor, expert, or lawyer. Anybody can do this. 

The recent two-day global forum that CDER presented brought together leading experts and communities around the rights of nature movement. What were your takeaways?

We are so pleased that Bioneers was a co-sponsor of the Global Forum. All panel sessions can be found here. Each speaker illuminated the fact that there is such an amazing amount of work being done to advance both the human right to a healthy environment and the right of nature to be healthy. These rights are related and support each other.

As we saw in the different campaigns presented at the Global Forum, we have a collective, growing understanding that fulfilling the human right to a healthy environment depends on the environment being healthy. That sounds like a simple idea, but is essential.

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