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Rights Of Nature

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Rights Of Nature

Abstract

In a June 2015 "letter to humanity about the Environment", Pope Francis asks us to redefine our relationship with the world in "the language of fraternity and beauty". For him, "the world" includes fellow humans and non-human living species. This call of unity between humanity and nature is an attempt to heal the wounds Western modernity has caused by equating civilisation with the goals of conquering wild nature or the "frontier". Others across the world too internalised this instinct, leading to the globalisation of a 'civilisational' ethos founded on violence-against nature and fellow human beings. The principle of ontological unity, attributed to some strands of Hinduism and many indigenous cultures, rejects such machoistic notions of progress and civilisation. Here, the unity of the human and non-human world is a given-and not in need of fresh assertions. Much of Hindu philosophy, though, is alive only in the scriptures and is delegitimised entirely by the violence of caste oppressions. It's the lives and lifeworlds of the indigenous peoples, including many in India, that still bear a resemblance to that ethos-being intricately tethered to their natural environments. These indigenous philosophies about the interconnectedness of humanity and nature have inspired calls for pursuing "inter-species justice" by enacting new and legally enforceable "rights" for nature and non-human species.
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Prakash Kashwan
Rights Of Nature
magazine.outlookindia.com/story/india-news-rights-of-nature/304135
In a June 2015 “letter to humanity about the Environment”, Pope Francis asks us to redefine
our relationship with the world in “the language of fraternity and beauty”. For him, “the
world” includes fellow humans and non-human living species. This call of unity between
humanity and nature is an attempt to heal the wounds Western modernity has caused by
equating civilisation with the goals of conquering wild nature or the “frontier”. Others across
the world too internalised this instinct, leading to the globalisation of a ‘civilisational’ ethos
founded on violence—against nature and fellow human beings.
The principle of ontological unity, attributed to some strands of Hinduism and many
indigenous cultures, rejects such machoistic notions of progress and civilisation. Here, the
unity of the human and non-human world is a given—and not in need of fresh assertions.
Much of Hindu philosophy, though, is alive only in the scriptures and is delegitimised
entirely by the violence of caste oppressions. It’s the lives and lifeworlds of the indigenous
peoples, including many in India, that still bear a resemblance to that ethos—being
intricately tethered to their natural environments. These ind igenous philosophies about the
int erconnectedness of humanity and nature have inspired calls for pursuing “inter-species
justice” by enacting new and legally enforceable “rights” for nature and non-human species—
take the 2019 perspective piece A Rights Revolution for Nature, published in Science, as a
recent instance.
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Protecting natural forests, wildlife and biodiversity is vital for both ins trumental and intrinsic
reasons—it is vital to a thriving planet and the fut ure of humanity. No one serious about
those objectives would question the need for nature conservation. But a question worth
pondering over is whether making species legal entities that enjoy rights would alleviate the
root causes of environmental and species destruction. The advocates of inter-species rights
present their argument as an exemplar of a non-ant hropocentric perspective—one that rises
above the par ochialism of a human-centred worldview. But the calls for the ‘rights of nature’
suffer from various problems. One is what philosophers would call a ‘category mistake’—the
fallacy of assigning to something a quality that can logically be assigned only to things of
another category. The very notion of ‘rights’ is an anthropocentric way of thinking—even if it
be about nature. That aside, even if ‘rights of nature’ were to become a universal law, effective
enforcement of such rights would rem ain a challenge.
Protecting forests, wildlife and biodiversity is vital for both ins trumental and intrinsic
reasons—it is vital to a thriving planet and the fut ure of humans.
Take the ‘Rights of Mother Earth’, a radical law that Bolivia’s Plurinational Assembly passed
in December 2010, drawing on the indigenous philosophy of Panchamama. In 2011, the very
next year, Bolivia began constructing a highway across the Isiboro Sécure National Park and
Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS). This project violated both the ecology and the rights of
indigenous peoples, who protested in large numbers, only to be suppressed violently. The
violations have continued apace, especially after the enactment of Supreme Decree 2366 in
May 2015, which legalises exploratory drilling of oil and gas in indigenous territories that are
also home to over 60 of Bolivia’s protected areas and 22 national parks. The Bolivian
government justifies these actions, violative of its own 2010 law, in the name of ‘national
development’.
This raises a fundamental question—should we be naïve enough to believe we can enf orce the
‘rights of nature’, even as we struggle to enforce fundamental human rights to any degree of
satisfaction? In any case, it would be a mistake to view the ‘rights of nat ure’ apart from, let
alone in contravention to, those ensh rined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
(UDHR). The ongoing deb ates on human rights to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable
environment recognise the interdependence of human rights and environmental protection.
Specifically these words: “…the exercise of human rights, including rights to freedom of
expression and association, to education and information, and to participation and effective
remedies, is vital to the protection of the environment.” David Boyd, the present UN Special
Rapporteur on environmental human rights, is walking the talk. He is joining as a friend of
the court in a legal battle that South Africa’s environmental groups are pursuing against the
government over the constitutional right to clean air.
Unfortunately, some of the largest nature conservation NGOs have long been accused of
supporting governments that use conservation projects to throw people off their traditional
lands. The research we have done at the University of Connecticut shows that, all else equal,
the poorest people in some of the poorest countries bear an extraordinarily large share of the
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costs of conservation. Global conservation preys on economic inequality and authoritarian
political systems for an ever-expanding neocolonial empire of conservation. Tens of millions
of people have been dispossessed and displaced from their lands because of the
establishment of national parks and other wilderness areas. Germany froze financial support
to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) following an investigation by online portal
Buzzfeed that showed it “funds, equips, and works directly with forces that have tortured,
raped and killed people.” In October 2020, the US government stopped over $12 million of
funding to WWF, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and other conservation NGOs
after a bipartisan investigation into whether conservation funds were used to support anti-
poaching acti vities leading to human rights abuses in Africa. The global evidence on the
excesses of nature conservation has not prevented advocacy for even more radical measures.
Renowned biologist E.O. Wilson advocates setting aside “half the planet in reserve, or more”
exclusively for nature conservation. Faced with criticism, Wilson and his supporters resort to
simplistic, patronising tropes: offering ind igenous people as “often the best protectors” of
nature, while hastening to add that “the half-Earth goal would not simply mean banning
people from half of the planet’s land area, but keeping these areas undeveloped.” Each of
these ideas hews to the presumptuous, demeaning imagery of noble savages, the ‘wild’ or
‘primitive’ human ‘uncorrupted’ by modern civilisation. As if on cue, right after those Wilson
quotes, the Guardian report placed a photo of Huaorani women and children sitting in the
forest in Bameno Community Ecuador’s Yasuni National Park—uncl othed, in their way, a fact
that only reinforces stereotypes here for the typical reader.
Res pect for nature demands that we make nature part of who we are and establish bonds of
love and affection that generations of Sufis have taught.
To reiterate, good intentions cannot delink ‘rights of nat ure’ from how these ideas are used in
practice. There is plenty of indication—from the UN targets of 30 by 30 (that is, 30 per cent
of global land to be set aside as protected areas by 2030) to wealthy foundations willing to
invest in Half the Planet proposal—that the advocacy of rights of nat ure is likely to entail a
massive expansion of the network of 21st century enclosures. Such reserves are placed under
legal and administrative arrangements that criminalise local subsistence use of natural
resources, such as fisheries, foraging for medicinal herbs, tending of household animals and
subsistence farming, while still allowing prospecting and extraction of fossil fuels and other
minerals. These processes are comparable to the creation of the 18th century English
enclosures in which village commons were privatised to support commercial wool
production.
Wilson’s privileged status—as a White male scientist at Harvard—cannot be discounted as a
factor in his larger-than-life persona and influence. It is also not a coincidence that Wilson
once echoed the Nazi doctrines on eugenics and suggested that “some human beings are
genetically superior to others”. It’s Wilson’s fellow global elite who are responsible for the
largest shares of environmental degradation and climate crisis. Yet, to paraphrase Pope
Francis, with an attitude of “masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on
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their immediate needs,” these biologists are presumptuous enough to dictate the fate of half
the planet. Locking nature away in safe boxes of wilderness will not prevent us from the sixth
mass extinction or a climate crisis, as evident from the wildfires in the Amazon, Australia, or
the American West. Regeneration of the earth’s ecosystem is vital to the multiple goals of
human well-being and planetary integrity. But creating elite-ordained pockets of wilderness
or conferring a set of utopian ‘rights’ to nature will not help if we continue business as usual
elsewhere. Instead, we need to harness the power of human-nature solidarities, as
exemplified by indigenous justice movements. We need to build new visions of regenerative
environmentalism that starts with stopping profligate consumption. Genuine res pect for
nature demands that we make nature part of who we are and establish bonds of love and
affection that generations of Sufis have taught us so beautifully.
Rights Diary
Prakash Kashwan is associate professor, Department of Political Science, and co-director,
Research Program on Economic and Social Rights, Human Rights Institute, University of
Connecticut, Storrs.
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