Rights of Nature


When I was being sentenced in Waitakere district court for trespass for occupying a Kauri for 3 and a half days, the Magistrate spoke of:

1) the landowner, their property, their rights to develop their property, and

2) me infringing those rights.

Whilst I was given a reasonably light treatment by the court, the notable absence in any of the discussion was any discussion of:

3) The right of the tree to stand, and

4) the right of the Waitakere Ranges to remain intact.

All of which got me thinking, that nature is invisible in New Zealand law. People exist in law, ships too, and corporations, but not nature.

Why does nature not exist in the law, except as property?

It is not the only way things could be.

In Ecuador rights of nature have been enshrined in their constitution since 2008.

What that means is that in that country nature is not simply viewed as property, something from which to extract, and to which to dump. That nature has rights “to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles”

The entrenchment of the rights of nature there allowed for the people of Ecuador to take one of their state governments to court on behalf of a river when roadworks were restricting its right to flow. The court ruled in favour of that river!

As someone who is Green to my core, the idea that nature has a right to exist separately from what it can do for me or what it can give me seems, well, natural.

I have spent years of my life, time I could have spent doing anything else, interceding between a natural place and those who would want to commodify it.

There is a ring of familiarity when I hear Cormac Culinan, a human who has written extensively of rights of nature when he says: “environmentalists are seldom seen as activists fighting to uphold fundamental rights, but rather as criminals who infringe upon the property rights of others.”

An Australian Government leaflet released today likens eco-activists to terrorists! link

As a result of my eco-activism I have a string of convictions for non violent crimes to my name, Trespass and ‘Fail to comply with the instruction of a police officer’, but in none of the cases where I have appeared in court has the reason I was there, the right of the tree or the forest to continue to stand alive, been a factor in the decision.

I would like to see rights of nature protected in law in this nation.

What would be different in an Aotearoa New Zealand where nature had rights would be that those rights could be defended.

Where governments, corporations and individuals could be held to account for infringing on those rights, and where proper restorative justice could be applied.

There’s no doubt in my mind that the RMA is broken. And with National’s stated desire to be to take out the bits of the act which are about sustainability and turn it into a development rather than a set of principles and rules about how we relate to the environment, I see that we are at an impasse. The RMA has been modified no less than 18 times since it was introduced, and is a political football.

Rights of Nature being recognised in law brings opportunities for better treaty relationships and implementation in this country as well. The legal personhood of the Whanganui River and Te Urewera, which recognise the rights of those places, and appoints guardians to speak for those rights is a living treaty relationship that recognises Kaitiakitanga.

Science has come to recognise what indigenous cultures have always known. That all of nature including ourselves are inextricably linked. The Gaia hypothesis. Papatuanuku. He waka eke noa.

If Aotearoa New Zealand had a written entrenched constitution I’d love to see rights of nature embedded there. Without an embedded constitution I’d like to see more places declared to have rights and have their Kaitiaki empowered. Maunga, Awa, Ngahere, Whenua.

I recently spoke to the Forest and Bird Society’s AGM in June on the idea of rights of nature as a conservation tool, and will be working with their board on the idea after their council unanimously supported a motion to investigate it.

Wanting to see nature have better protection under law and deeply desiring better realtionships between the state and Tangata Whenua is why I am a meber of the Green Party, and all of us working together is the best chance we have at making the fairer, more sustainable world we so desparately need!

This post is an abridged version of an article originally published in “Te Awa” the membership magazine of the Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand. All views are my own.


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