The future of the Rights of Nature: an interdisciplinary scoping analysis

Lead Research Organisation: Roehampton University
Department Name: Social Science


The high rates of environmental degradation and increasing impacts of climate change on society evidence a strong and growing need to find new ways to manage natural resources in a sustainable and resilient manner. Recent reforms have been largely reactive to these intensifying crises. As the frequency and magnitude of environmental crises accelerate, one new and little explored innovative approach to offer a better and more sustainable management of natural resources is emerging under the banner of 'Earth Law'.

The movement to support Earth Law, underpinned by the emergence of a new legal theory, also known as Earth Jurisprudence, is gaining momentum. The idea of Earth Law is to recognise the 'legal personalities' of nature, granting natural resources rights, powers, duties, and liabilities of legal subjects. Since Ecuador included Rights of Nature in its Constitution in 2008, new legislation and court cases recognising the legal rights of nature have emerged in several countries. But the most developed application has been materialised via the recent recognition of the rights of rivers in New Zealand, Australia, Colombia and India. As rivers cannot act legally on their own, this is based on new institutional arrangements recognising a 'guardianship' role for local communities and indigenous peoples.

This new approach to guardianship could offer a more respectful and empowering participatory integration of indigenous peoples' philosophical and cultural approaches to nature. It could also offer a less anthropocentric way to relate to nature, by recognising some of the indigenous philosophies which recognise and value nature as a living being. In theory, this relies on a balance between the interest of nature (the rivers) and the interests of the local populations (socio-culturally and economically).

Although there is some emerging analysis of these legal developments in their own national jurisdictions, there is little interdisciplinary analysis on how this might constitute a new ecological and participatory model for the stewardship of nature. Interdisciplinary research between humanities, social sciences and life sciences is lacking as previous analysis has been largely contextual and field specific. Our scoping study will constitute one of the first international and interdisciplinary analysis on the relationship between rivers rights, indigenous peoples' guardianship and Earth Law. As such, it will contribute to pushing the frontiers of knowledge concerning the way more direct management of natural resources by local communities can contribute to protecting local ecosystems and provide a platform for new embedded forms of local resilience. To do so, we propose to develop a new Legal, Ecological and Participatory (LEAP) model to explore future research in this field. By developing a new interdisciplinary approach to the study of Earth Law, our study will explore whether a new model of 'guardianship' could contribute to a more sustainable management of the environment, while also improving people's livelihoods in ways that are culturally sensible, equitable and sustainable.


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