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Posts Tagged ‘Rights of nature’

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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[While the post below, originally written for my work blog 6 Degrees of Population, isn’t specifically on India, it does highlight the increase in poaching of endangered species around the world that must be stopped.]

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During that 15 minute coffee break you took this morning, somewhere across the ocean an elephant was killed.  It is estimated that every 15 minutes an elephant is slaughtered, about 40,000 annually.

It makes you wonder how much longer wild elephants will roam the earth.  Because at this rate, with high global demand for ivory and high levels of poverty for people that live near these creatures, they won’t be around for much longer.

Elephant

The New York Times recently ran an op-ed by Carl Safina of the Blue Ocean Institute called “Blood Ivory” that highlighted the forces at play.  Certainly consumption and poverty are drivers, but Safina pointed out how international policy has failed elephants.  A loop-hole of sorts in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES – an international agreement that regulates the trade of endangered plants and wildlife), allows for one-time sales of ivory stockpiles, resulting in skyrocketing demand for ivory.  Ironically, a CITES ban on ivory in 1990 was successful in increasing elephant populations, yet this same multilateral environmental agreement is now feeding demand for ivory.

It is undeniably a bleak situation, yet there are some solutions – beyond ending the CITES loop-hole – that can begin to address and hopefully change the situation for the better, for both people and elephants.  Two solutions are empowering women and recognizing rights of nature.

Solution: Empowering Women

Addressing the needs of women can benefit communities and the environment.  Women are on the frontlines of coping with the effects of environmental degradation. In most countries around the 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, including climate change.

A woman’s decision on when and whether to have a child and her access to reproductive care, as well as education, are key components of a healthy and sustainable society.

In Tanzania, for example, family planning use has increased among married women since the early 1990s, yet it is still relatively low in the country, rising from 10 percent in the early 1990s to 34 percent in 2010, according to Population Reference Bureau.

Part of empowering women is addressing inequity.  Tanzania currently has 46 million people, estimated to increase to 82 million people by 2050. Most poachers are driven by grinding poverty, in a country where nearly 70 percent of the Tanzanians live on less than $1.25 per day. When people’s basic needs are met, they choose to invest in their families and communities.

Tanzanian Woman

Empowering Tanzanian women and families with reproductive rights, healthcare, education and sustainable and secure livelihoods can and will improve the situation and enable them to overcome challenges.

Of course, poachers tend to be men, and males with little education or few job prospects need to find ways to survive and feed their families.  Men need to be invested in and empowered too, to overcome poverty and a lack of quality jobs, and to have the right to an education.  Ultimately it comes down to empowering all people.

Solution: Rights of Nature

Earth does not exist for our species alone. Elephants and species all over the world are at grave risk due to human development and demand. The planet is undergoing its sixth mass extinction. Despite global conservation efforts, more species are lost every day. Worse, some like elephants and rhinos, are poached only for their tusks and left to die.

Given this situation, there is a growing movement around recognizing rights of nature that acknowledges that nature in all its life forms has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles. This is another solution for protecting elephants. Under this thinking, nature is not viewed as property and something to be exploited by humans.

There is precedent. Ecuador has included rights of nature in its state constitution, recognizing the legal right of ecosystems to exist. Bolivia has passed a law of Mother Earth, mandating nature legal rights, specifically the rights to life, regeneration, biodiversity, water, clean air, balance, and restoration. Rights of nature has been upheld in Ecuadorian court.

Considering Tanzania again, which still has a somewhat viable elephant population, recognizing rights of nature could be one way to protect remaining numbers.  The country recently rescinded a proposal to sell a stock-pile of ivory under the CITES loophole.  If rights of nature laws were in place, then selling ivory could be found illegal.

Natural laws should be constructed to be in balance with the needs of local people; as stated above, even poachers need education and sustainable economic alternatives.  Currently though, neither elephants/nature, nor people, are winners in this terrible situation.

Ensuring a Brighter Future

Not to be overlooked is the role of consumption.  Educating and empowering women and girls, promoting economic and sustainable livelihoods for local populations, and pulling people out of poverty must be top priorities.  But if there are no consumers for a product, or if there is a ban, then the market theoretically disappears, as happened with the earlier CITES ban.  A ban on ivory trading must be reinstated across the board, no exceptions.  And consumer education must also be made a priority.  Buyers of ivory need to fully comprehend – and care – about the true costs of ivory.

It is estimated that Africa has lost close to 90 percent of its elephants in the last fifty years.  There is still a small window of opportunity to change this picture and protect elephants and the people who share the land with them.  This is not negotiable; this is how a civilized society should function.  The global community knows what to do – fully implement a ban on ivory, invest in people’s rights and livelihoods, and protect and respect nature.

(Elephant photo credit: Derek Keats, http://www.flickr.com/photos/dkeats/6026172562/sizes/m/in/photostream/)

(Tanzanian woman photo credit: NewsHour, http://www.flickr.com/photos/newshour/3724432128/sizes/m/in/photostream/)

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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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The piece below was published earlier this month on Earth Island Journal.

I just spent the better part of my weekend in a class discussing a global movement springing up around the concept of recognizing rights of nature, something I have been thinking a lot about recently. The class (and the movement) addressed a big concern facing our society — that our way of living is built on a structure of endless economic growth. Yet we live in a world of finite resources and limited space. Why is there this blind faith in growth when we know that it can’t last?

Simply put, it is what we are constantly told by our leaders and media.  Corporations and economies must grow or they will fail. We must buy more stuff to support business and be happy. Somehow we choose to ignore the reality of non-renewable resources. Our way of living is on a collision course with nature. In our technology-obsessed world, we forget that humans are part of a natural system that provides for our well-being.

Science and technology will indeed play an important part in figuring out a sustainable future. But I think looking at how our relatives lived and interacted with the natural world not that long ago (and many indigenous peoples still do today) is also crucial. Acknowledging that nature has rights puts a priority on ceasing the rampant over-consumption and exploitation of natural resources and species. It is what lies beyond the growth paradigm and what I believe will set us moving in the right direction.

Respecting Nature

“Rights of Nature,” as defined by the Global Alliance on the Rights of Nature, is the recognition and honoring that trees, oceans, animals, mountains have rights just as humans do. 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. People have the legal authority and responsibility to enforce these rights on behalf of ecosystems. Once nature is accepted as having standing in the eyes of the law, then when a man-made disaster occurs, such as an oil spill, a lawsuit can be brought on behalf of the polluted ecosystem.

Ecuador and Bolivia have included rights of Nature in their constitutions, recognizing the legal right of ecosystems to exist. In Ecuador, a significant milestone was achieved recently when a provincial court ruled in favor of nature, saying that the flow of Ecuador’s Vilcabamba River was being affected by a road expansion project and ordering corrective action. This is the first successful case defending rights of nature.  Other countries too, are beginning to explore legal rights for nature and what it could mean for their communities.

This will obviously require a major shift in thinking for many people, but we need something other than “business as usual” if we wish to sustain life on this planet. We can’t expect the system that caused our problems to solve our problems. The world economy is based on exploiting the earth for all that we need, be that coal, oil, trees, fish, precious metals, water and air. According to Indian physicist and environmentalist Vandana Shiva, “Further economic growth cannot help regenerate the very spheres which must be destroyed for economic growth to occur.”

Small Norwegian town

The Growth Imperative

Economic growth has been the mantra since the Industrial Revolution, and especially so since post-World War II. Businesses, stock markets, and bottom lines must grow to succeed, and companies must explore, drill, and mine for ever-dwindling resources in order to grow. Certainly this is what we all hear in the news day in and day out.

James Gustave Speth, professor and former dean of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, recently wrote about the need for creating a new vision of economic growth. According to Speth: “The never-ending drive to grow the overall US economy is ruining the environment; it fuels a ruthless international search for energy and other resources; it fails at generating the needed jobs; it hollows out communities; and it rests on a manufactured consumerism that is not meeting the deepest human needs. Americans are substituting growth and consumption for dealing with the real issues…”

Adopting new measures to gauge progress is important [see alternatives for measuring economic progress in Earth Island Journal’s Autumn issue], but without a paradigm shift in how we interact with nature — respecting the world we are part of and not simply exploiting it for our needs — we will be spinning our wheels. Unwavering faith in the market will not improve the sustainability and livability of our communities.

Human wellbeing doesn’t depend on economic growth and the pillaging of the earth’s resources. As Tom Goldtooth, director of the Indigenous Environmental Network says:

“Long term solutions require turning away from prevailing paradigms and ideologies centered on pursuing economic growth, corporate profits and personal wealth accumulation as primary engines of social well-being. The transitions will inevitably be toward societies that can equitably adjust to reduced levels of production and consumption, and increasingly localized systems of economic organization that recognize, honor and are bounded by the limits of Nature…”

Ultimately, the bottom line that we should care most about is that we all live on one planet, dependent on each other and a sustainable environment. The people of Ecuador and Bolivia are leading the way, showing how recognizing rights of nature can help us achieve a healthy planet. The rest of us should follow.

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kingfisher (credit: birding.in)

In this day and age, it is time to move beyond our human-centric world and consider the well-being of the entire planet.  As I’ve previously mentioned, the concept of rights of nature is a worthwhile measure to consider in our attempts to improve the environment. Rights of nature is the recognition that trees, oceans, animals, and mountains have rights just as human beings have rights.

Focusing on India, the country is a biodiversity hotspot, home to a beautiful array of flora and fauna. Yet is racing against a population soon to be the most numerous in the world, not to mention its burgeoning economic development.  Tigers, kingfishers, and elephants compete with people for land that is becoming degraded and scarce for all.

I would like to see India take a serious look at what Ecuador is doing in regard to its biodiversity.  In 2008, Ecuador passed a rights of nature clause into its constitution, becoming the first country to do so. This grants nature the “right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution” and mandates that the government take “precaution and restriction measures in all the activities that can lead to the extinction of species, the destruction of the ecosystems or the permanent alteration of the natural cycles.”  And Bolivia too, is set to pass an even more far-reaching right into its constitution, granting all nature equal rights to humans.

I think India is a prime country for passing similar legislation.  It is the world’s largest democracy blessed with gorgeous geography and nature. But what makes India stand out, in my opinion, is its rural population, especially farmers.  Make that especially women.  In India, nearly 72% of employed Indian women are in the agriculture sector.  Women the world over have intimate knowledge of food systems and organic farming, and are the traditional keepers of seeds and protectors of biodiversity. Women know the lands they work and often implement best practices for the regions in which they live. Furthermore, economist Bina Agarwal states that in areas where women are the decision-makers within community forests in India (and Nepal), the forests are greener, firewood needs are better satisfied and women are more empowered.

Society must promote and preserve the knowledge women, and men, have in nurturing the land before they too, decide to leave it behind and get on the global consumption bandwagon. Empowering women, and linking the rights of women with the rights of nature, is a winning formula for protecting communities and the planet.  Granting rights to the natural world (how human-centric is that?) may seem radical or too “out there” for some people, but it could be the way, or at least one way, of preserving what we’ve got before it’s too late.

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