An image of Mother Earth painted by watercolor
Planet Earth painted by watercolor. Credit: Elena Mozhvilo / Unsplash

The Rights of Nature movement is picking up momentum. In 2008, Ecuador amended its constitution to grant Mother Earth the right to exist and to “maintain and regenerate her cycles, structure, functions and evolutionary processes.”

Attorney Hugo Echeverria with the Center for Democratic and Environmental Rights says that the Constitutional Court of Ecuador is now issuing precedent-setting verdicts to make this a reality.

According to Echeverria, the Court recently ruled that Ecuador’s state water authority used inconsistent and imprecise measurements to over-allocate water in the river Aquepi. It ordered comprehensive studies of the Aquepi’s flow, structure, functions, and life cycle to correct the water allocation and to develop a conservation plan. In its decision, the Court blended the rights of nature and humans.  

University of Ottawa law professor Aimée Craft is working with Indigenous communities to restore their sacred relationship with water. She cautions that “legal personhood” alone cannot fully accomplish this: “water is life and it has a spirit.” 

On Earth Day, April 22nd, NDP Deputy Leader Alexandre Boulerice spoke at the United Nations in New York, calling for legal personhood status for the St. Lawrence River and its watersheds. He plans to introduce legislation so that ecosystems like the St. Lawrence River can be better protected.

Giving rivers their own legal rights is a prominent part of the Rights of Nature movement, but by no means the only one.  

Ecuador’s Constitutional Court has ruled that the Los Cedros cloud forest, home of the Spectacled Andean Bear, is worthy of the highest possible legal protection. It ordered mining companies — one state-owned, one Canadian — to cease their activities and restore the damage they had done. The Court recognized that communities around the forest have rights to clean water and a healthy environment.

The Court has also determined that the rights of a woolly monkey were violated when it was removed from its natural habitat and kept as a pet. Animal rights activists and Rights of Nature activists are finding common cause.

Article 9 of Chile’s new constitution says: “Individuals and peoples are interdependent with nature and together, they are an inseparable whole. Nature has rights. The State and society have the duty to protect and respect them.”   

The Rights of Nature have been recognized in many countries at national and municipal levels.

Francine Pauvif, co-founder of the Canadian Youth Biodiversity Network and Rights of Nature campaigner with the Sierra Club Canada Foundation, is closely following these developments. She emphasizes the importance of time spent in nature for the mental health of young people who are struggling to come to terms with the accelerating climate crisis.

Canada’s Senate is considering amendments to the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 that could allow legal recognition of the Rights of Nature. Unfortunately, however, as presently worded, the preamble to Bill S-5 only says “the Government of Canada recognizes that every individual in Canada has a right to a healthy environment.”

This affords no recognition that Mother Earth has a right to exist, and fails to acknowledge the interdependence of people and nature.

This human-centric language in Bill S-5’s preamble is further weakened by some clauses. There is a clause that says the right to a healthy environment is to be balanced with economic factors. Another states that Ministers shall “develop an implementation framework to set out how the right to a healthy environment will be considered.”

Joseph Castrilli and Fe de Leon, in a Canadian Environmental Law Association blog, warn that an “implementation framework” regime would be entirely dependent on the will of government, and would be “the opposite of a rights-based approach to the law.”

They add, “A right requires a remedy for individuals to invoke in an independent forum (i.e., a court) when, for whatever reasons, government will not act. Such a remedy-based right is precisely what is lacking.”

Countries around the world recognized the human right to a healthy environment years ago. Canada is a laggard. 

Countries are now moving to recognize Rights of Nature. Canada should seize the opportunity to do so as well.

Ole Hendrickson

Ole Hendrickson

Ole Hendrickson is an ecologist, a former federal research scientist, and chair of the Sierra Club Canada Foundation's national conservation committee.