Past President of Wild Ones Tim Lewis asked me to respond to a question which appeared on the Wild Ones Group Facebook account. The question is “Does Wild Ones have a position or any active involvement in supporting the rights of wild rice and the native people whose lives and culture depend on it?”
Before I could begin to answer this question, I had to acquaint myself with the “Rights of Nature,” under which this question would fall. Back in September 9, 2017 I had written a post entitled “Rivers have Rights?” That lawsuit is still pending, but in delving further into the rights of non-human systems, I’ve discovered some very interesting information about the growing campaign to declare nature has rights.
Rights of Nature
According to the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature, “under the current system of law in almost every country, nature is considered to be property, a treatment which confers upon the property owner the right to destroy ecosystems and nature on that property.” Rights of nature, however, means recognizing ecosystems and natural communities are not merely property to be owned, but are systems which have an independent “right to exist and flourish.” Laws recognizing the rights of nature change the status of natural communities and ecosystems from mere property to entities having rights — rights which can be enforced by people, governments, and communities.
From the Timetable on Advancing the Legal Rights of Nature, there are a number of countries and a few USA communities that have recognized or are in the process of recognizing the Rights of Nature:
- In 2006, Tamaqua Borough, Pennsylvania, in the U.S., banned the dumping of toxic sewage sludge as a violation of the Rights of Nature.
- In 2008, Ecuador became the first country in the world to recognize the Rights of Nature in its national constitution.
- In 2010, Bolivia’s Legislative Assembly passed the Law of the Rights of Mother Earth.
- In 2011, the first Rights of Nature court decision was issued in the Vilcabamba River case in Ecuador, upholding the Rights of Nature constitutional provisions.
- In 2014, the first Rights of Nature state constitutional amendment was proposed in Colorado. Efforts are now advancing in Ohio, New Hampshire, Oregon, and other states.
- In 2014, the New Zealand Parliament passed the Te Urewera Act, finalizing a settlement between the Tūhoe people and the government. The Act recognizes the Te Urewera – a former national park, of more than 2,000 square kilometers – as having “legal recognition in its own right.”
- In 2016, the Ho-Chunk Nation took a first vote for a Rights of Nature tribal constitutional amendment, the first tribal nation in the U.S. to do so.
- In 2016, Colombia’s Constitutional Court ruled that the Rio Atrato possesses rights to “protection, conservation, maintenance, and restoration,” and established joint guardianship for the river shared by indigenous people and the national government.
- In 2017, Mexico City incorporated language into the city constitution which requires a law to be passed which would “recognize and regulate the broader protection of the rights of nature formed by all its ecosystems and species as a collective entity subject to rights.”
- In 2017, the High Court of Uttarakhand in India issued rulings recognizing the Ganga and Yamuna Rivers, glaciers, and other ecosystems as legal persons with certain rights.
- In 2017, Lafayette, Colorado, in the U.S., enacted the first Climate Bill of Rights, recognizing rights of humans and nature to a healthy climate, and banning fossil fuel extraction as a violation of those rights.
- In 2017, Colorado River v. State of Colorado was filed in U.S. federal court. In this first-in-the-nation lawsuit, an ecosystem sought recognition of its legal rights. See Rivers Have Rights?
- In 2018, the Ponca Nation of Oklahoma adopted a customary law recognizing the rights of nature.
- In 2018, the Colombian Supreme Court recognized the Colombian Amazon as a “subject of rights.”
- In 2018, the High Court of Uttarakhand in India recognized rights of the “entire animal kingdom.”
- In 2018, the White Earth band of Ojibwe recognized the “Rights of Manoomin” as a part of tribal regulatory authority. The resolution states, “it has become necessary to provide a legal basis to protect wild rice and fresh water resources as part of our primary treaty foods for future generations.”
On June 18, 2015, Pope Francis presented his Encyclical on the Environment calling for swift action to curb functions which increase climate change. The Pope declared it was caused by human-kind and called for Christians to save our planet by refraining from ecological sin. In calling for a new era of environmental protection at the UN, the Pope declared, “a true ‘right of the environment’ does exist…”
The fact that there are other countries and states within the USA recognizing the Rights of Nature means there is basis for supporting this in our system of law.
Answering the Question
Although I’ve never really thought about whether nature has rights, I do agree ecosystems and natural communities are not merely property to be owned and treated without regard for the destruction of the ecosystems and nature on that property. These systems need to exist and flourish for the benefit of all, not just for the property owner and not just for today, but forever. Our Earth has limited resources and if we don’t take care of them, there will cease to be an Earth for future generations of humans.
Wild Ones position statements relate to the importance of preserving, restoring and establishing native plants and natural landscaping. Our mission statement specifically mentions preserving biodiversity. Although I don’t know if Wild Ones would specifically support the rights of wild rice and the native people whose lives and culture depend on it, it certainly would be within our mission statement to support the preservation, restoration and establishment of native wild rice.
Just as a side note, Wild Ones in the past has been invited to participate in tribal conferences because we share that common goal of preserving, restoring and establishing native plants and natural landscaping. I’m not certain if we’ve been invited since I retired.