The UK Environmental Law Association holds its annual Wild Law weekend just after the September equinox and it was useful to review the developments of the past year. When we were in Derbyshire last September the people of Ecuador were voting in a referendum for their new Constitution and they shortly afterwards became the first country in the world to embed rights for nature in their constitution. Article 71 reads: ‘Nature, or Pachamama, from which life reproduces and enfolds itself, has the right to the integral respect for its existence and the maintenance and regeneration of its vital cycles, structures, functions and evolutionary processes. Every person, community, people or nationality, can require that public authorities comply with nature rights.’ Article 72 asserts that: ‘Nature has a right to restoration’, while Article 74 gives ‘Individuals, communities, people and nationalities’ the ‘Right to benefit from the environment and the natural riches which permit buen vivir’ . It is yet to be seen how this will work in practice, but its presence in the Constitution is a great encouragement to Wild Lawyers everywhere.
Meanwhile, in the US, the Borough of Shapleigh in Maine, exercising its power to adopt local legislation, decided that ‘Natural Communities and ecosystems possess inalienable and fundamental rights to exist, flourish and naturally evolve within the town of Shapleigh’. The law confers legal standing on any town resident to seek relief for damage caused to nature and was adopted to enable citizens to take action to protect their natural environment from damaging exploitation by a multi-national corporation.
Shapleigh, like other boroughs in Pennsylvania that have adopted similar provisions, now faces a court challenge on the grounds that the law is unconstitutional because it violates the constitutional right to property. The cases to come will highlight the conflict that exists between modern notions of absolute property rights and the real needs of the environment on which all species, including the human species, depend. Resolving that conflict is one of the great tasks that Earth jurisprudence faces.
These developments are small in themselves, but they are part of a growing global consciousness of the need to reassess the whole human relationship with nature and embody the new relationship in formal law. There is a long way to go but the journey is already well started.