Western legal systems have long since viewed nature as property, as a resource from which to extract wealth. This is completely contrary to many indigenous cultures who have viewed themselves as part of nature. To them, the idea of possession of land is considered strange and absurd, because they view themselves as custodians, guardians of the land for their people, present and future, as well as for nature itself.
With increasing degradation and destruction of ecosystems, conventional laws seem inadequate to address these issues, so some are turning to a new legal strategy known as ‘the rights of nature’.
The film first explores the story of Ecuador, which in 2008 became the first country to pass constitutional recognition of the rights of nature. It then proceeds to understand several other movements for the rights of nature in New Zealand, where the first river in the world was granted personhood rights in 2017, Iceland, India, and the USA.
Each location has its unique, but similar challenges and attempts to deal with them in ways drawn from and limited by their historical and political situation. Implementation of rights of nature laws has been very difficult, but proponents see it as a long-term project that will likely take decades to achieve the type of social, legal, and corporate change required for the laws to have force.
The film explores the successes and challenges inherent in creating new legal structures that have the potential to maintain and restore ecosystems while achieving a balance between humans and nature.
The history of the idea of the rights of nature is long and in developed countries was kickstarted, as the film tells us, by Christopher D. Stone, who published ‘Should Trees Have Standing? Law, Morality, and the Environment’ in 1972. The Rights of Nature is a well-paced documentary that weaves a coherent link between its three main case studies (Ecuador, New Zealand, USA) and the broader history and story of the movement. The film is engaging and easy to follow; complicated legal and philosophical arguments are communicated in with examples and straightforward language.
The film makers include one independent filmmaker, Issac Goeckeritz, and two professors at Weber State University in Utah, USA: one a professor of English and the other with a doctorate in sociology of the law. Four of the six financiers of the film are institutions of Weber State University, indicating a strong link with the production. This could indicate that the filmmakers had relative freedom regarding the content and the direction of the film. It’s unclear to what extent the university was involved in the film or its editing in an official or unofficial capacity. The filmmakers hail from the humanities, indicating that the film may have been influenced to be more of an emotional storytelling device in some parts, rather than a dry, science or legal documentary. Indeed, Goeckeritz’s filmmaker website states that “as a filmmaker, I have a desire to capture stories that motivate, spread positive influence and are accessible to all who seek them. I record to inspire.”
One area where the film excels is in explaining the context and at times complicated politicking of each of the case studies it examines. For example, the first and most detailed section of the film details the 2007/08 constitutional convention in the Ecuadorian parliament and the fierce debate over granting nature rights equivalent to a person. Ecuador still has large areas in the east with remote indigenous populations and relatively undisturbed forest and jungle that is at risk from oil mining and other development. Indigenous communities, activists, lawyers, researchers, and government officials working to encourage these types of arrangements are given voice in the film and each of the interlocutors in the film are presented positively. The narration, by Shawn Murdock, is sparse and only when needed, leaving the interviewees to tell the story.
The Ecuadorian case study is used to guide viewers through the legal and moral logic of the rights for nature that is the basis for all the subsequent examples in other countries. It shows how opponents in the Ecuadorian parliament mocked the idea saying that nature could not legally defend itself in court and that it could not sign a legal agreement, therefore, could not be recognised as an entity with rights. Supporters of the proposition countered that there were already rights for children, animals, and certain disabled people that can neither defend their rights, nor sign a legal document in a court. The proponents wanted a system where, similar to children, a guardian could act in the protection of nature and that any citizen could put themselves forward for that purpose. These arguments are presented simply and effectively in the film, showing Ecuador’s approval of the constitutional recognition of nature possessing rights in 2008, becoming the first country in the world to do so. Bolivia following closely behind in 2009.
The controversial negotiations that took place in New Zealand during the 2010s are also presented in a similar manner with interlocuters from local communities and the government. The situation in that country was about how to distribute rights for a specific forest and a river. The government saw it as too controversial and dangerous, due to citizen opposition, to give total ownership rights back to the original inhabitants, the Māori. However, the Māori peoples didn’t want to own the land or the river in the first place, as they didn’t see it as their possession to own. They viewed themselves as guardians, custodians of the land and therefore they suggested a different approach where the land would own itself and the people would be its caretakers. This approach was adopted and it was the first case where a river was given legal rights.
It’s yet to be seen how well these laws can be implemented, and the film describes some of the problems facing cities and countries where it’s been attempted. The film portrays the concept as an interesting alternative approach to resource management, particularly where existing property rights are already contested and controversial.
One noted absence from the film is any commentary or opinion from the corporate/business world, or opposing legal interpretations. Short mention of these views are left to the narrator. The people, companies and governments who conduct damaging, destructive, or extractive practices toward nature are presented negatively and are also mostly absent from any direct speaking role in the film. The British colonisers of New Zealand are also portrayed negatively.
The aesthetic of the film is calm and soulful and it treats its subjects with respect and, at times, reverence, allowing their words to carry the viewer into an emotional, almost spiritual place. The music is soft and well balanced and doesn’t interfere with the story or over-dramatize it.
The film presents some interesting analogies and analysis of the rights of nature, acknowledging that it's a very radical idea to think of the environment as a subject and not an object, like is usual under western conceptions. One respondent saw this change in mindset as similar to the radical shift in the USA when that country was abolishing slavery and giving rights to slaves who were before seen as objects. She concedes that it will take a long time, probably decades, to see the changes in the legal, governmental and corporate systems take place in regard to the rights of nature, just as it did following the abolition of slavery. This argument is likely to be attractive to some and controversial to others. The separation between humans and animals and nature is still a hotly debated topic for many people. Not many like having their value compared to animals or a river in highly individualistic cultures.
Finally, the film touches on the problems of how these types of laws could have an effect in highly urbanised areas, as shown with the example of Santa Monica in the USA. It poses the question, ‘what does a right for nature mean in highly modified urban environments?’ This is even more challenging when one considers the projections for 2025 of a world population of 9.9 billion with 68% living in urban areas. The film discusses at length the many difficulties and trade-offs in many areas, but does not discuss how demographic changes or increasing climate change impacts, including destruction of environments from storms, droughts and floods, and displacement of indigenous peoples, may alter the way in which it’s possible to make such long-term legal and social changes in some parts of the world.
(with contribution from Cameron McLennan)
Other version in English with Spanish subtitles: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RupkZM8dV14
The history of these ideas is long and in developed countries was kickstarted by Christopher D. Stone, who published ‘Should Trees Have Standing? Law, Morality, and the Environment’ in 1972. See links for further reading.
See links below for more in relation to the Whanganui River situation in New Zealand:
Matthias Kramm (2020) When a River Becomes a Person, Journal of Human Development and Capabilities, 21:4, 307-319, DOI: 10.1080/19452829.2020.1801610 (https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/19452829.2020.1801610 )
Articles on the rights of nature
O’Donnell, E. L., & Talbot-Jones, J. (2018). Creating legal rights for rivers: lessons from Australia, New Zealand, and India. Ecology and Society, 23(1). https://www.jstor.org/stable/26799037
YARLAGADDA, T. (2021). DOES NATURE HAVE LEGAL RIGHTS? THE ANSWER IS NOT AS SIMPLE AS YOU THINK. Inverse (website) https://www.inverse.com/science/does-nature-have-legal-rights
Darpö, J. (requested by the European Parliament's Committee on Legal Affairs) (2021) Can nature get it right? A Study on Rights of Nature in the European Context. https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/STUD/2021/689328/IPOL_STU(2021)689328_EN.pdf
Guim, M. & Livermore, M.A. (2021). Where Nature’s Rights Go Wrong. Virginia Law Review, v.107(7). https://www.virginialawreview.org/articles/where-natures-rights-go-wrong/