Archive for the ‘Rights of Nature’ Category

Earth Day has come and gone, and most people, if they even participated in any activities, have probably moved on with other things.  It’s great to celebrate Earth Day, but the time has come for something beyond just a single day.  Something that will make a lasting difference.

(image: visibleearth.nasa.gov)

(image: visibleearth.nasa.gov)

What would make a difference is recognizing rights of nature. There is a growing movement in support of this right, especially as environmental degradation worsens, the impacts of climate change become more severe, and more people are calling for healthy and empowered communities.

The city of Santa Monica, California just passed by unanimous vote a Bill of Rights for Sustainability, which authorizes the city to “recognize the rights of people, natural communities and ecosystems to exist, regenerate and flourish.”  What this really does is empower citizens to sue on behalf of their local environment.  According to Mark Gold, chair of Santa Monica’s Task Force on the Environment, “It was time to shake things up, recognize the existing environmental laws just weren’t doing the job and that sustainability wasn’t actually possible as long as we treat nature as a thing to be exploited.”

This is a step in the right direction that more communities and countries should consider.  As noted in previous posts, Ecuador, Bolivia, and over three dozen U.S. municipalities have passed rights of nature laws.

In India, the rights of nature movement is coalescing around cleaning up and protecting sacred rivers such as the Ganga (Ganges) and Yamuna.  The National Ganga Rights Movement has formed over concern that over 3 billion liters of pollution – namely toxic chemicals and sewage – are dumped into the Ganga River.

One-third of India’s 1.2 billion people live near the river, and most depend on it for drinking, cooking, and washing.  It is also home to the Ganges river dolphin.  According to World Wildlife Fund, the river dolphin “is threatened by removal of river water and siltation arising from deforestation, pollution and entanglement in fisheries nets.”

Despite being one of the world’s most polluted rivers, in Hindu mythology the Ganga is the embodiment of all sacred waters, and therefore to bathe in it is a holy act.

The Ganges River (photo: commons.wikimedia.org)

The Ganges River (photo: commons.wikimedia.org)

The National Ganga Rights Movement is calling for a National Ganga Rights Act which would, among other things, establish, secure, and defend the inalienable and inherent rights of the Ganga River, its tributaries, and watershed, and the rights of the people of India to a healthy, thriving river basin.  And, it “establishes the rights of the people of India and their governments to defend and enforce the rights of the Ganga.”

You can read more about it at Avaaz, and sign a petition in support of the Ganga and rights of nature.

Lest you think there is no precedence, last year New Zealand granted the rights of personhood for the Whanganui River.

In the U.S. we accept corporations as people, so why not extend rights to nature?  If we are to truly protect ecosystems in India and around the world, we need to start thinking outside the proverbial box, as well as for the long-term.


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A recent story on BBC News epitomizes some of the challenges for balancing conservation efforts and the needs of people.

The news article of note addressed wildlife, endangered species, development, and population growth in Nepal. Titled Attacks Prompt Nepal to Cap Wildlife Growth, the BBC reports that “Officials in Nepal have said they will now have to put a cap on the growth of wildlife including endangered species like tigers and rhinos.”

Yes, it actually says that a cap on wildlife is needed. In a world where endless growth is held up as the standard to attain, it turns out that this doesn’t apply so much to nature.

nepaleserhinoAccording to Krishna Acharya, spokesperson for Nepal’s Forest Ministry, “The number of rhinos and tigers are increasing in the national park and they are moving out in search of food and space. Meanwhile, the increasing human population needs more of the natural resources available, and that competition creates conflict.”

Unsurprisingly, wild animals don’t respect human boundaries and may feel compelled by instinct to migrate. Conservationists underscore the importance of creating wildlife corridors in addition to protected areas, for species that need to roam.

In the late 1960s, an estimated 65 Indian rhinos survived in Nepal, but due to increased conservation efforts, the total population was up to 534 in 2011, according to data from World Wildlife Fund.

However, despite that success, many scientists believe the Earth is undergoing its sixth mass extinction. For example, the Bengal tiger is close to being poached and encroached out of existence. In 2000, Nepal was home to over 350 tigers, but by 2008 numbers plunged to 121.

Every effort should be made to protect all wildlife. Human encroachment all over the planet has wiped out an unknown number of species since the dawn of man. That doesn’t mean that it’s okay to have leopards running around attacking children or elephants rampaging villages. Yet somehow, a balance must be found between people and nature.

There are a few ways to attain that that balance – by investing in rights-based approaches and conservation efforts that involve local people.

Women’s Empowerment

Empowering women and girls is a big factor in protecting the environment. A woman’s right to decide when and whether to have a child, and her access to reproductive care, are key components of a healthy and sustainable society.

Women are on the front lines of coping with environmental degradation. In most countries around they world they are the main providers of food, water, and other resources for their families. When women are empowered, they can better support their families and adapt to environmental impacts.

In Nepal, the total fertility rate (average number of children born to a woman during her lifetime), currently at 2.6, has been declining. In terms of contraceptive use among married women ages 15-49, forty-three percent use some modern method of birth control (compared to the world average of fifty-six percent).

A United Nations Population Fund report found “issues of equity in access to resources (e.g.,land, water, forest, etc.) and women’s meaningful participation in resource conservation and management, land development and infrastructure projects have not been addressed effectively so far.”

The country is also not doing eradicating poverty. Seventy-eight percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day. Bringing women out of grinding poverty and reducing gender inequality should be a priority.

Rights of Nature

There is a growing movement around recognizing rights of nature. Rather than treating nature as property under the law (as women and slaves once were), rights of nature acknowledges that nature in all its life forms has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles. Rights of nature laws eliminate the authority of a property owner to interfere with the functioning of ecosystems and natural communities that exist and depend upon that property for their existence and flourishing.


It is seeing the natural world as something other than a resource for human exploitation, and that humans are part of nature, not separate. It may be a difficult concept for some to acknowledge, but humans depend too much upon the ecosystem to not consider how we disrupt it to the detriment of others, and ourselves.

Acharya, of the Forestry Ministry, “hinted” that his country will now not commit to protect more wildlife than the amount its protected areas could sustain. Comments such as this reflect the urgency to find ways to value and respect the web of life.

Continued Conservation Efforts

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), like most conservation organizations (and governments), wants to involve locals in conservation efforts, which can provide livelihoods and income. In turn, people become invested in preserving their local environment and culture. It is also important to implement education and awareness programs for both tourists and the local community.

The IUCN also states how critical it is to reduce human-wildlife conflicts, and suggest this might involve fencing. Yet there have been few studies on its effectiveness. One study on elephants and electric fences found that “electrified fences can alleviate human-elephant conflict when well maintained and vigorously enforced.” However, it also found the cost of constructing, maintaining and enforcing is high and that “this approach may only be applicable in well-resourced conservation areas.” Given Nepal’s conservation successes, it seems fencing might be worth undertaking.

Future Outlook

Nepal has made great strides in protecting its wildlife. Yet instead of celebrating this fact, wild species appear to be more of a burden than benefit. In a country slightly larger than Arkansas, with a population of 30 million, there will continue to be challenges between humans and nature.

Nepal is not alone in striving to meet the needs of its people and wildlife. Only by educating and empowering people, and respecting rights for all – wherever we live – can we hope to live sustainably and in harmony with the natural world with which we share the planet.

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In 2012 I was very fortunate to attend several prominent international conferences where population issues – including human rights, the environment, and the global economic reality – were discussed. These events were the Aspen Ideas Festival, the Rio+20 Earth Summit and the Montreal International Conference on Degrowth in the Americas.

iStock_000014852074XSmall Earth

My current work is writing on many issues related to population, especially rights and the environment. We live in a world with 7 billion people that is predicted to be between 8 to 10 billion by 2050.  And we face many pressing problems that need solutions grounded in fairness, equality, and respect for life.

After attending these conferences, along with other events, experiences, and research, I decided to write a report on inclusive, holistic approaches to covering this subject. The result is People’s Rights, Planet’s Rights: Holistic Approaches to a Sustainable Population. It recommends focusing on the following issues to create a path to a sustainable population:

  • Women’s Rights – providing voluntary family planning services to the 222 million women in developing countries who want access to family planning services but do not have access to contraceptives;
  • Youth Rights – providing comprehensive sexual and reproductive health education to the nearly 3 billion young adults under the age of 25;
  • Rights of Nature – recognizing the legal right of ecosystems to exist;
  • Rethinking the Economy – accepting that endless economic growth is unsustainable and more efficient global indicators of human and environmental well-being should be adopted.

While there has been much focus, and rightly so, of the need to empower women as the answer to stabilizing population numbers, I think that other issues are sometimes overlooked. One is recognizing the rights of youth to reproductive health and education. Another – the need to reassess our endless growth economy – isn’t often mentioned as a solution in conjunction with human rights. Lastly, the concept of rights of nature is barely mentioned at all.

This report is my attempt to bring these issues together as a way to craft policies to better our communities and our world. Certainly it could have a big impact on India, which is soon to have the world’s biggest population. Balancing human rights with nature’s rights would help tigers and other endangered species. Creating local, sustainable economies with quality livelihoods would help people and the environment.

The same applies for the U.S. and developed countries. The situations might be slightly different, but in the end, they are not really so different; after all, we all share the same planet.

In my opinion, implementing policies based on the points above are worth undertaking and we have nothing to lose by doing so. It just might make the world a better place, which is what most of us want.

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The headline from an Indian newspaper tells us all we really need to know: 69 tigers die in 9 months; only 1,706 left.

India’s National Tiger Conservation Authority (NCTA)  just announced that tiger deaths are on the rise and that 69 of them having been killed or died naturally in the past nine months.  This is a five-fold increase as compared to 2011.

“While 41 tigers were killed due to poaching or in road-hits and other accidents, the other 28 were natural deaths,” said Rajiv Sharma, an assistant inspector-general with NCTA.  He reported that the maximum number of tiger deaths took place in Uttarakhand, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh.

These deaths have brought down India’s tiger count to 1,706.  This includes 61 tigers at the Kanha reserve, 143 at Corbett National Park, 22 in and around the Tadoba reserve, 65 at Mudumalai and 40 at Ranthambore tiger reserve.  (However, in some good news, Sariska Reserve now has two new cubs, bringing its total number of tigers to seven.  This is something, since only a few years ago no tigers were at Sariska, due to poaching).

Minister of state for environment and forests Jayanthi Natarajan said  “The anthropogenic pressure on our forests and wildlife is much more than ever before due to the thrust on economic growth and creation of more jobs.”  That’s a bit of an understatement.

New guidelines on tourism have been proposed by the Indian government, which, if accepted, would see the ban relaxed, but India’s Supreme Court once again postponed its decision to review the proposed guidelines and determine whether they are sufficient to lift the ban.

The ban has so far had a limited impact, but this month marks the start of the tiger tourism season and the real pain of the ban could be felt.  The Supreme Court is due to hold another hearing on October 9th.  There are concerns, especially from those in the tourism industry, that a final court decision could be delayed, partly due to the complexity of the issues, and India’s convoluted legal system.

Personally, I’m concerned that nothing concrete is going to happen.  Tiger numbers will continue to decline, and people dependent upon tourism for their livelihoods will also suffer.

If you read the New York Times or National Geographic, you  might have seen several stories on the poaching of elephants for the ivory trade.  Much of it goes to China and Southeast Asia.  Same with tiger parts.

India needs to do a better job protecting its tigers, with support from the international community.  But as with the African elephants, education needs to be front and center where animal parts are sought after, especially in China. We know what needs to be done, though it may not be easy or cheap.  Poaching needs to end, there must be more enforcement, plus viable economic opportunities provided to poor communities, educational efforts in places where people buy poached parts, and more protected areas and corridors, to name a few.

Ultimately the tiger ban is a good thing, but as I’ve written before, it could  be in only certain parks, with some tourism allowed in others.  There needs to be a balance between people and nature, but nature needs to be given a fair chance.

The Rights of Nature movement is active in India, with Dr. Vandana Shiva and her organization Navdanya gathering over 100,000 signatures in support of these rights.  You can watch her presentation on rights of nature at this summer’s UN Rio+20 Earth Summit.

Conservation efforts alone aren’t enough.  It’s time to do more and take serious action for the sake of tigers and all species – including people – before tigers are poached out of India.

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The Indian Supreme Court has extended the ban on tourism in core tiger reserves until September 27th.

In the meantime, the Indian central government has been asked by the court to work with states and stakeholders (namely tour operators, hotels, and guides) to develop new guidelines on ecotourism in the tiger reserves.

The traditional start of the peak tourist season is October 1st.  The current ban affects more than 40 tiger reserves.

The Travel Operators’ for Tigers, an organization dedicated to responsible travel, said in a press release, “If nothing else, the ban has been an effective catalyst for everyone to debate the issues associated with wildlife tourism and conservation practices, and help bring it to much needed national attention – and action.”

Debate is good. The next month will most likely have many discussions on whether or not tourism deters poaching or can be detrimental to the tigers.  There are many examples of each.  And there are instances of things going to far. Ajay Dubey, the original petitioner of the ban, believes several Indian states have permitted the construction of hotels and shops inside the reserves, which shouldn’t be allowed.

Hopefully constructive talks will be held, and effective guidelines put in place.  The focus must be on how best to protect tigers.

Perhaps the idea of leaving some parks closed to tourism will be on the agenda; maybe it has already been discussed. Leave open some of the most popular and accessible parks, such as Rathambore and Corbett National Parks.  Continue the ban in others to see if it makes a difference.  And find ways to provide sustainable livelihoods for local peoples.

The battle to save tigers – not only in India but internationally – has not been all that successful, given the continued downward spiral in the number of wild tigers.  New approaches need to be undertaken.  Education is key, and also ways of making it more valuable to leave the tigers alone than to poach them out of existence.

Passing a Rights of Nature ordinance is another innovative approach.  Tigers and other species don’t exist for humans entertainment or use; we are all part of the same web of life and we disturb it at our own risk.

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Events in India over the last few weeks have or will have big impacts on tigers. India’s Supreme Court recently issued a temporary ban restricting tourists access to tiger parks.  The month of July ended with a massive blackout that left close to 700 million Indians without electricity – about 10% of the world’s population.  Then August started off with a report by Greenpeace calling for a moratorium on new coal projects in India, citing evidence that coal mining threatens wildlife and forests.

(photo: archaeologynewsnetwork.blogspot.com)

No doubt the blackout will increase the number of voice calling to expand coal mining; coal-fired power plants produce almost 80% of India’s electricity.

According to the Greenpeace report, most of the new coal mines will be in central India – Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, and parts of Odisha and eastern Maharashtra.  1.1 million hectares of forests are under threat. Moreover, these places are home to 35% of India’s tiger population.  And probably more than a few people depend upon the forest for their livelihoods.

So on the one hand India is trying to protect the endangered Bengal tiger, and on the other it is continuing its dependence on one of the most dirty of fossil fuels, even importing coal to feed the system.

The UK Guardian put it quite well:  “A hot-button issue in India, the question of tiger conservation pits the responsibility for preserving wildlife against the development needs of a country that witnessed the slowest economic growth in nine years in March and where hundreds of millions continue to live below the poverty line.”

The situation India is in is also one most of the world is in – development/lifestyle vs. the environment.  Do countries continue to mine for coal, knowing that it will destroy animals, forests, and communities, not to mention the vast amounts of pollution it creates and the toll mining takes on the miners themselves?  Or is it time to seriously invest in clean energy?

India has abundant solar and wind (read Andy Revkin’s blog on bringing solar to rural communities; I also wrote about this a few years back for Triple Pundit).  Off-grid electricity has huge potential, not to mention increased energy efficiency efforts.

(photo: zimbio.com)

Business as usual cannot work much longer on a planet with finite resources and a growing number of consumers.

The Greenpeace report is long and very detailed.  But all one really needs to take from it is that there are at best 1,700 tigers left in India, over 80% of India’s proven coal reserves are found mostly under forests in Central India, and that India’s coal is likely to last only 30-40 more years.

Is it worth destroying so much when proven alternatives exist and the lives of future generations are at stake?

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Last week, in an effort to protect tigers, the Supreme Court of India passed a ban on tourists and commercial activities in “core” areas of the country’s tiger reserves.

(photo: hellotravel.com)

There is disagreement amongst tiger conservationists and others about the ruling. I’ve come across a couple of articles listing some pros and cons:

Reasons for Restricting Access – tourists disturb tigers, restrict tiger movements, tourist activities are often unchecked, can be noisy, crowd the animals in jeeps when there is a sighting, leave litter behind

Reasons for Not Restricting Access – tourists help keep park activities in check and make it harder for poachers, there have been no reported tiger deaths due to tourism, a majority of poaching incidents have occurred during monsoon season when parks are closed to tourists

A recent Wall Street Journal blog noted that the order could effectively kill tourism in some of India’ major parks, yet others will barely be affected by it.  Specifically, Ranthambore National Park, one of the most well-known parks and which has 31 tigers, would see tourism come to a standstill.  Yet Jim Corbett National Park in northern India, which is much bigger and has a core area already mostly off-limit to tourists, won’t see much affect from the ban. This park has 227 tigers.

Perhaps some of the parks that will be most impacted by the ruling could learn something from how Corbett National Park is managed.  Or maybe a few of the 40 existing tiger reserves could be exempted from the ban on the grounds that it would not only severely restrict tourism but also affect livelihoods.

I see both sides of the argument, but I think the ban is needed and worth trying.  I’m certainly not an expert on tigers or conservation, but given that there are approximately 1,700 wild tigers left in India and maybe only 3,000 total in the world, something needs to be done.

Something also worth exploring as a way to protect tigers is recognizing Rights of Nature in the Indian constitution.  Simply put, this is the recognition that trees, oceans, animals, mountains have rights just as human beings have rights. Rather than treating nature as property under the law, rights of nature acknowledges that nature in all its life forms has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles.

There is precedence for this. Ecuador and Bolivia are the first two nations to have passed a Rights of Nature clause into their state constitutions, and there was a ruling in Ecuador that found in favor of nature.  Others countries, such as the Maldives and Nepal, are exploring the concept.

I’m not sure if there have been any serious discussions in India, but I can’t think of a better country to pass legislation protecting nature. As exciting as it would be to see tigers in the wild, given their precarious state I think our first priority should be to let them be and have a chance to build up their numbers.  This ban may help.  Yet having a law supporting their right to exist would be even better.

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