Rights of Nature – Codifying Indigenous Worldviews into Law to Protect Biodiversity

In deep contrast to the “human vs. nature” dichotomy underpinning much Western thought, Indigenous Peoples share a worldview that humans are a part of nature’s interconnected systems. It’s not surprising that Indigenous Peoples are at the forefront of a growing movement to acknowledge the legal “Rights of Nature.”

Below is a conversation from the 2017 Bioneers Conference in San Rafael, CA featuring world-renowned Indigenous environmental leaders, who share their approaches to this game-changing strategy for protecting Mother Earth and Indigenous rights.

Hosted by Kandi Mossett, (Mandan/Hidatsa/Arikara), Native Energy and Climate Change Organizer, Indigenous Environmental Network. With: Maui Solomon (Moriori), attorney, Chairman and CEO, Hokotehi Moriori Trust; Kealoha (Hawaiian), Hawaii’s Poet Laureate; Tony Skrelunas (Diné), Native America Program Director, Grand Canyon Trust; Tom Goldtooth (Diné/Dakota), Executive Director, Indigenous Environmental Network; Leila Salazar-Lopez (Chicana/Aztec), Executive Director, Amazon Watch. Introduction by Alexis Bunten, Bioneers Indigeneity Program Co-Director.

Alexis Bunten

ALEXIS: The idea that nature is a living being is nothing new to Indigenous and other traditional Peoples around the world. While the Western philosophical system is underpinned by the idea that humans are separate from nature and in dominion over it, indigenous philosophical systems tend to conceive of humans as a part of nature and in relationship with nature. So as such, it’s our job to help maintain that balance. And perhaps no one else better understands that the current legal system is designed from the bottom up to exploit nature than Indigenous Peoples, because we grow up with it and we live with it every day.

So for me, I grew up with the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which was enacted in 1971. It established native corporations to manage $963 million, in trade for giving up our original aboriginal customary title to the land. We’re doing the best we can with the settlement, but I think it was a pact with the devil, because we played into the Western system of law that considers nature as property, and it totally goes against our native worldviews.

Rights of Nature is a growing movement, though, to create a new system of legal policies that recognize nature’s right to exist as it is. Communities, tribes and nations are enacting it right now, and it’s being tested in court, and we’re seeing more and more victories.

In the U.S., more than three dozen communities have now enacted Rights of Nature laws, with communities now joining together in several states to drive rights through state constitutional amendments. The Ho Chunk Nation, who is working with the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, is the first tribe in North America to adopt rights of nature into its tribal constitution. This is a starting point. An intertribal effort can be part of a larger strategy to engage hundreds of communities into a long-term struggle over land use, community economic green development, and self-determination.

Until we’re able to shift mainstream perceptions of nature from something to be exploited to something to be protected for the benefit of generations to come, this strategy could at least buy us time to protect parts of the planet from immediate threats.

Today we’re going to hear from tribal leaders and experts from six different Indigenous Nations about how the Rights of Nature fits into indigenous worldviews.

We’re going to hear about some of the legal pathways that tribes have taken to incorporate indigenous customary or traditional law and philosophy into the law, the potential and the pitfalls for it to be implemented, and what’s actually been done inside and outside of the U.S. so far.

I’ll turn it over to Kandi, who will be moderating this discussion.

Kandi Mossett

KANDI: Thank you. There are some really amazing things that have happened in this past year when it comes to the rights of nature.

I am going to turn to Tom and Kealoha first: What does the rights of nature mean to you, and specifically from an indigenous perspective?

Tom Goldtooth

TOM: I’m the director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, and we were given a mandate by youth and elders in 1990, and ’91, and ’92, and ’93. Those were the formative years in the development of a new entity to defend the sacredness of our Mother Earth, our Father Sky, and all other parts of our creative principles. Creation and the creative principles of life itself.

In those early years, our task was to put together a structure that links to what we now call frontline communities, and to address the issues of how racism in this country does not protect our homeland and our people. It’s been a long struggle leading to something that has become very popularized at Standing Rock: concepts of Mni Wiconi and water as life.

Why is it that, after all these years, we’re still fighting for not only our rights, and for the consciousness of Mother Earth as a conscious, living, intelligent entity? The dominant society doesn’t understand this.

I often hear tribal grassroots people, traditional leaders, women and our youth saying, “I’m here to speak about the water; I’m here to speak about the trees. They don’t have a voice that dominant society can hear, so I’m here to speak for them.” That’s helped me to understand the concept.

The Indigenous Environmental Network is a member of the Global Alliance on Rights of Nature, which is predominantly a non-indigenous entity forming. But how does this movement fit with our indigenous articulation? I consulted with our different elders and people who are knowledgeable: Is this something we take part in?

I feel that we need to be involved with a global initiative because we don’t have political power. Corporations have more legal standing than Indigenous Peoples do. If the non-native people are starting to understand and come full circle to understanding their place in the cosmos, their understanding of their worldview that embraces something that Indigenous Peoples relate to, then that is a tool for us to take part in. This is a way to lift up and have a new legal paradigm, a new legal system that moves away from a property rights regime.


KEALOHA: Aloha. I’d like to start off with a quick poem to just sort of frame my vision for the rights of nature. It goes:

Listen to the wind.
You can hear the world breathing if you just listen.
These breezes whisper melodies of different lands,
Transcribed through time.
They are like wind chimes.
Swirling energy carrying seeds of wisdom,
You can hear them as they blow through leaves of ancient trees,
These breezes,
Breathing and exhaling,
Telling the stories of this world for an eternity.

Listen to the sea.
It is the lifeblood of this planet,
Pumping and pulsing through every crevice,
Connecting the nations of this world through its embrace-tracing patterns,
And the sands of our birth lands,
Crashing on shores,
Expanding past horizon,
Reaching deep into the depths of our imaginations.

Listen to the land.
It is the Earth’s belly,
Rumbling and turning as tectonic plates shift.
We sift through its soils,
Break into primates giving birth to life,
Giving birth to us.
We are grateful.

For every gift Mother Earth gives, we live.
Because the life of this land is perpetuated in righteousness.
We are blessed to see her beauty,
Taste her elegance,
Smell her power,
Touch her essence.

This world becomes a miracle when you take time
To just listen.

Earth has been around for about 4.5 billion years. We as homo sapiens have been around for a couple hundred thousand years. We’re just a little blip on the Earth, and in the grand scale, if you zoom out, she doesn’t care about us. She’ll shake us off like fleas if she chooses. She’s seen meteors, comets and asteroids bombarding her, lava pools scattered throughout the world, hot temperatures, cold temperature, the extinction of 90% of the species on Earth. She’s seen a lot.

And as much devastation as we think we are doing, it pales in comparison to what she’s capable of. If you took us off this planet, the Earth would regenerate itself and look as if we weren’t here in what, 100 years? A thousand years?

In my mind, when we talk about rights of nature, I feel like it’s a great mechanism to address the real issue, that it’s not about just the Earth, it’s about our relationship to the Earth. And it’s about trying to create a circumstance where we can figure out how to survive on this blue dot for as long as we can. We’ve got a limited amount of time here, and that’s the game, to figure out the right relationship with which we can interface.

Considering nature as a living, breathing entity is nothing foreign to Indigenous Peoples from all around the world. We’ve figured out how to adapt and change our ways to establish our indigenous niches throughout the world, and it just took a bunch of time.

And when I look at these relationships, if we’re considering nature as a living, breathing thing, which it is, then when we start to look at different species and how they interact, there are two ends of the spectrum.

On one side you’ve got parasitism. Like mosquitoes on us, or like fleas on dogs. Where the parasite consumes the host and negatively alters it. I feel like the way that we live our lives today, a lot of us, we’re a little bit more on that side of things.

And on the other end is commensalism. This is when an organism benefits from another organism, but that organism that it’s benefitting from is not affected. For example, birds building their nests in trees. They don’t really affect the tree in a negative or positive way, but the bird is provided with structure for its house.

And I feel like from an indigenous perspective, us Indigenous folks found a way to be more on the spectrum of commensalism. We were able to interface with nature, gather what we needed to survive, but didn’t affect it in a major, significant way.

So when we talk about rights of nature, in my brain it’s about shifting our perspective to skew more toward commensalism. That way, we can learn how to create a relationship where we are able to survive, but aren’t affecting our nature in a negative way, because if we do, the consequences are we perish.

KANDI: Thank you for that, Kealoha. That was really interesting. And then Tom, of course, thank you. I’ve been working with IEN for 10 years, and it’s nice to hear it from this fresh perspective as we continue to talk about the rights of nature.

One of the questions that I often have too, which I want to pose to you, Maui: How can the rights of nature help us to assert our rights as Indigenous Peoples?

Maui Solomon

MAUI: Warm greetings to you all. I’m from the Moriori tribe, and my island is Rekohu, known today as the Chatham Islands, about 500 miles east of New Zealand.

That’s where my ancestors—Rekohu was one of the last inhabitable islands in the Pacific to be settled 1,000 years ago. So it’s the terminus of Polynesian navigation and settlement.

Rekohu. Image credit: wikimedia commons

I want to talk today not so much about human rights or birth rights, I want to talk about birth responsibilities and human responsibilities. There’s too much focus on rights. We need to think about what our responsibilities are.

As a Moriori person, we’re born with a responsibility to look after Pāpātuanuku, Mother Earth. The name of the placenta that connects a newborn baby to its mother is called whenua. Whenua is also the name of land. So our placenta has the same meaning as land.

When that placenta comes out of the mother, you take it and bury it back on the land. And so for all time you are connected to the land. I’ve done that with my children.

So when I’m born, whether I know it or not, I have a responsibility to look after that land. And I also have a responsibility because in my personal genealogy, I see Wanganui, the sky father, and Pāpātuanuku, the Earth mother. Then there’s Tane, the god of the forest, and Tangaroa, the god of the sea. They’re all of my ancestors. I’m born with a responsibility to look after those things.

I was 23 when I started on this road. It’s been a long journey, and for me I got involved in this struggle because my people were considered for 70 years to be extinct. We’d lost our lives, our land, our liberty, and our language. And we were extinct. Or that’s what was taught in New Zealand schools, and generations of New Zealanders still believe that. But here I am.

So the message is: Never give up hope. You can always make a change, even if you’re considered not to exist. You can always come back.

Now I want to say to the young people: sometimes these things can be so, like, “Oh, these things are too big; what can I possibly do?” What you can do, young people, is plant a tree. Find a little bit of ground and plant a tree and water that tree. It’s the most satisfying and most important thing you can do in your lifetime. Because you get to see that tree grow, your children will get to see that tree survive, and their children and their children. So it’s important to plant trees.

I’ve been asked to talk about legal systems. New Zealand has recently acknowledged the Wanganui River as a legal personality. Well, it’s always had a life to the people of the Whanganui River, but now it’s recognized in law.

On Rekohu, we’ve gone from being a people who are “extinct,” to soon being the single largest landowner again, back in our tribal territory after 30 years. So from having no land, we’re now going to be soon the biggest landowner. And we’re recognized by the government, by all tribes, and by the international community. We’ve used direct negotiation and direct action to show that it’s not impossible for these things to happen.

I’ve been an attorney at law for 30 years, so I’ve fought some hard battles in the courts and tribunals, including internationally. We’re in the process right now of settling claims through the Treaty of Waitangi. We’re going to get a whole lot of our sacred lands back as government reserves, so we will become the guardians and the owners in a Western sense, but we’re reconnected to our whenua, reconnected to our land. And it’s our obligation as traditional guardians of that land to restore its cloak.

So through taking action, you might not get the outcome that you’re seeking, but you will influence policy and change.

KANDI: Thank you for that, Maui. And I think what you were describing really is the process of decolonization. And people hear that word and think, “Oh, that’s too big, that’s too scary. I don’t know what it means.” I could literally break it down to: It’s planting a tree. You know? As a step in the right direction. It’s just really amazing to bring it back full circle to what it all means.

And I do want to pose a question to Tony here, specifically on next steps in our communities that we can take for responsibly using rights of nature in our communities.

Tony Skrelunas

TONY: The question is: How do we go about it? I want to approach it from three angles. In 2009, I sat down with my assistant Deon and our program manager, and we said we have to help tribes develop efforts to protect the environment, to preserve their lands, their sacred areas, and to work with them. But we didn’t want to do it the Western way, by going to the tribal chairman and to the tribal attorneys. We wanted to follow a traditional process, and I think that’s something to really think about here: When you look at the rights of nature, what is the vehicle that you’re going to use?

Grand Canyon

In our thinking, we said we can’t use a Western system of government. The Diné government was formed in 1923 when the federal government really needed somebody to sign off on exploration of oil and coal. Also at that time, the whole United States policy was acculturating the Indian. So that’s when our government was formed, and still to this day, you talk to our tribal government officials and a lot of our bread and butter is still coal mining, power plants, oil and gas. So we have to get out of that framework, and we have to think about something that is a more tribal process.

So what we looked at was, well, how are these natural Indigenous laws made? How were those teachings actually created throughout our society, the thousands and thousands of years that we’ve existed?

We studied a lot of that. You don’t have to depend on government to do this stuff. You have to think back to even a hundred years ago. Our tribal peoples would come together over a problem, observe it and talk it through with some elders and highly responsible people, come up with a solution, then share that solution with the greater population through stories, poetry, songs, dance.

So if we go back to that as tribal people in our discussions about rights of nature, how then do we select the representatives that are going to come together?

And in our effort, we found people that were the master planters, the people that are teaching the kids about traditional dances, the traditional cultivation techniques, the master hunters. Those are the people that we brought together, not government people. And a lot of fantastic work has resulted from that.

There’s a lot of ways we can incorporate the rights of nature into the future of our communities, economy and conservation. We look a lot of time from the Western perspective, but when we look at our tribal perspective, our peoples migrated. In our traditional lens, we didn’t own land. So those are some of the things that I just would like to add to the discussion today.

KANDI: Thank you for that, Tony. I think there’s about 568 federally recognized tribes in the U.S., and many more that aren’t federally recognized. So we’re all different.

Now I want to go to Leila. Could you talk to us about all the amazing work that you’ve been doing, and share with us the experiences that you’ve had in implementing the rights of nature?

Leila Salazar-Lopez

LEILA: Thank you. So much has already been said but I really want to share what is happening with the rights of nature in Ecuador. I come here in a humble way to share the work that we’re doing at Amazon Watch, which is to protect and stop the destruction of the Amazon, and we can’t do any of that without Indigenous People.

The only way to really save the Amazon is to stand with Indigenous People. They have been defending the Amazon for thousands of years, and that’s the way it will be protected.

And for those of you who don’t know, the rights of nature is actually in the constitution of Ecuador. If any of you have ever seen what’s written in the constitution of 2008 in Ecuador, it’s pretty amazing and inspiring, and forward-thinking. I just want to read a couple of the articles in the constitution, and share with you a little bit about some victories, but also some threats, and the long way that we have to go so that this can actually be implemented.

The Rights of Nature in Article 71 says nature or Pachamama, “Mother Earth, where life is reproduced and exists, has a right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions, and processes in evolution.” Article 72 says nature has a right to restoration. I think this is really important because a lot of times we hear corporations say that land is degraded, so let’s plant palm oil plantations. That land is degraded, so let’s build homes over there. That land is burnt. I’m thinking about our fires right now, like what are you going to build there next? Let’s think about that.

Not just in Ecuador but around the world, many laws sound beautiful, like the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. That’s a beautiful document, which took 30 years of struggle from initial little meetings and working groups. I’m sure some of our elders here were a part of those meetings, and worked very hard to get almost 200 countries to sign onto this. There was a lot of resistance, a lot of struggle to get this in place.

But is it being implemented? Not really. That’s the same thing with the Rights of Nature in the Constitution of Ecuador.

There are auctions for the last remaining resources in Ecuador. I’m talking about major giveaways to the oil and mining industries. There was an oil auction a couple of years ago, where literally 21 oil blocks overlapped with protected areas and Indigenous People’s territories, without the prior informed consent of the people.

And because they have been resisting these threats for over 525 years, the Indigenous People in the Amazon basically said no. We will not allow the oil companies and the government to come onto our land and take the oil.

The Ecuadorian government says that might be your territory, but the sub-surface mineral rights are ours. And they have signed the UN Declaration, but they were still violating the rights of Indigenous Peoples, the rights of communities, the rights of nature.

Luckily, people resist. There was a lot of on-the-ground resistance. There were international campaigns to stop the eleventh round. And I’m happy to say that because of this unified effort from the international community, everywhere the Ecuadorian government went to auction to basically sell off their remaining resources — from Quito to Texas to Canada — we were there.

And I’m not just saying Amazon Watch. I’m saying the Indigenous People of the Amazon were there. We were there supporting and accompanying them to make sure that their voices were heard, so they could speak for themselves. And I’m happy to say that that eleventh round oil auction was a flop.

So we’re constantly reminded that we are the best protectors of Mother Earth, best defenders of Mother Earth, and we have to listen. We can protect natural sacred areas, and win.

Keep Your Finger on the Pulse

Our bi-weekly newsletter provides insights into the people, projects, and organizations creating lasting change in the world.