Rights of Nature

Photo credit: Jan Mangan

Rights of Nature is a global movement to protect nature (rivers, mountains, and entire ecosystems and the life forms supported within them) by recognizing its legal rights. Just as humans and corporations are considered to “have rights,” this legal strategy grants rights to nature itself. These frameworks turn the existing property rights-based paradigm upside down and offer a powerful basis and strategy to conserve lands and communities. They also offer a radically different worldview: the right of nature to exist, persist, flourish and evolve.

At its core, Rights of Nature reflects Indigenous worldviews. While the Western philosophical system is underpinned by the ideology that humankind is separate from nature and has dominion over it, Indigenous worldviews conceive of humans as a part of nature, with an obligation to maintain its balance and the intrinsic right to life of all beings.

Bioneers’ Role in the Rights of Nature Movement

Bioneers first began to highlight Rights of Nature governance practices in 2006 at the Bioneers Conference, featuring the leading US lawyer in this space, Thomas Linzey, then of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF).

Photo credit: Sabien Chen

This movement, whose roots lie in post-Civil War abolitionist efforts, began in the US in 2006 and was rapidly adopted globally. Bioneers was the source that catalyzed the daisy chain of connections that led to Rights of Nature being made a part of the Ecuadorian Constitution in 2008, with our partners at CELDF, Rainforest Action Network and Pachamama Alliance. Additional Rights of Nature laws and policies have since been upheld by the courts in Bolivia and Aoteraroa (New Zealand) leading to the actual protection of landscapes. In March 2018, Colombia took the boldest step yet in partnership with multiple tribes to institute Rights of Nature in the Amazon.

Like waves lapping on the shore, we’ve steadily kept promoting these ideas and practices at our conference and through our media, in tandem with our close working relationship with Thomas Linzey and Mari Margill of the Center for Democratic and Environmental Rights.

In 2017, Bioneers obtained a grant to offer trainings on Rights of Nature legal frameworks to federally-recognized US tribes. During the 18-month pilot phase, we gathered with tribal leaders in the Southwest through a series of meetings and workshops to assess interest in and the need for tribes to adopt Rights of Nature into their legal governance frameworks.

Following these trainings, Indigeneity Program Co-Director Cara Romero introduced a Rights of Nature initiative to her tribe. Through a series of grassroots community meetings held from January through April 2018, Chemehuevi tribal members and the Tribal Council agreed that they want to protect their reservation lands and the western borders of the Colorado River through a Rights of Nature tribal constitutional amendment. Other U.S. Indigenous communities are also pursuing this path, such as the Ho Chunk in Wisconsin and White Earth in Minnesota, who recently adopted the “Rights of Manoomin” (wild rice) in their ancestral territory.

“Indigeneity assumes a spiritual interconnectedness between all creations, their right to exist and the value of their contributions to the larger whole. At the core of Indigenous thinking is that coexistence relies on the ability of all peoples’ and living things’ voices be heard and heard equally.”

– LaDonna Harris, Founder and President of Americans for Indian Opportunity

Rights of Nature and Native Lands

Millions of acres of Native American sacred lands are now critically threatened since the Trump administration rolled back federal protections for numerous National Monuments and Conservation Lands across the West to open them up for mining and drilling.

Many US tribes’ reservations fall within or adjacent to these lands and precious watersheds, including the Colorado River. These are just the latest actions in a 500-year crusade to strip Native Americans of their resources, violate ceremonial sites, destroy sacred burial grounds, and ultimately extinguish Indigenous Peoples’ human rights.

Rights of Nature and Tribal Sovereignty

Rights of Nature governance offers a new legal and philosophical toolkit to prevent the destruction of Indigenous lands and cultures, while strengthening tribal sovereignty. With tribal sovereignty comes immunity from lawsuits.

If U.S. federally recognized tribal nations adopt Rights of Nature frameworks into tribal constitutions, they cannot theoretically be sued by a corporation attempting to violate these rights. It is only when a tribe’s governing council authorizes an action or policy pursuant to tribal law that the tribal immunity waiver can go into effect on a nation-to-nation basis as decreed by law and treaty.

Photo credit: Tony Webster

A Four-Year Plan to Bring Rights of Nature to Indian Country

After careful deliberation, and with a combined 30+ years of collective experience managing tribally-led initiatives and programs across Indian Country, we have crafted a 4-year strategy to introduce Rights of Nature across Native North America.

If many tribes adopt Rights of Nature policy, we have the power to stop unwanted mining and drilling in its tracks while driving the renewable energy economy.

PHASE I will focus on setting the groundwork and supporting Western tribes who are most threatened by current developments in US policy, and who have also expressed a desire to implement Rights of Nature policy.

PHASE II will focus on disseminating good practices and expanding our reach to support as many tribes as possible who are interested in adopting Rights of Nature.

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