Citizenship for Bees?

All over the world local, indigenous, and national initiatives are recognizing species, natural entities, and ecosystems legal rights to exist, persist, thrive and regenerate.
Reading Time: 5 minutes

All over the world local, indigenous, and national initiatives are recognizing species, natural entities, and ecosystems legal rights to exist, persist, thrive and regenerate.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

A global movement is exploring ways to recognize rights to nature as a way to protect it.

To make people feel responsibility for their surroundings and nature, a mayor in a suburb in Costa Rica made bees, bats, and birds fellow citizens. Meanwhile, sea turtles in Panama got legal rights to live in an environment free from pollution and poaching. Last year Spain recognized legal personality to its coastal saltwater lagoon- Mar Menor, and India recognized that Mother Nature has the same legal status and rights as a human being. 

All over the world local, indigenous, and national initiatives are recognizing species, natural entities, and ecosystems legal rights to exist, persist, thrive and regenerate. This global movement is giving previously legally powerless citizens and groups the possibility to voice and speak for the environment. Additionally, a legal omission is addressed, as companies have legal presence and rights and can act as an actor in our society and legal systems and present and defend its own interests. 

Rights to Nature Initiatives Historically 

The origins of the Rights to Nature movement is commonly traced back to 1972, when a law professor from USC, named Christopher Stone, wrote an influential article, called “Should Trees Have Standing?”. Stone argued that nobody can speak for deer, fish, and birds that are inflicted by human induced activities, such as pollution. He claimed that those who do not have a voice should be represented in our legal system by a guardian like minors are. 

In my country, the Netherlands, one could argue that rights of nature were already unknowingly introduced a long time ago, through a special ‘Deed of Redemption’. This Deed was granted to a small forest in Den Haag by William of Orange, the head of state of the republic Holland in the 16th Century. The deed proclaimed the protection of this forest and has prevented the sale and chopping of the trees to this day.

Rights of Nature Initiatives Globally

In 2006, the Rights of Nature (RoN) movement started gaining momentum, with Blaine Township in Pennsylvania, accepting the US Corporate Land Development Ordinance. This ordinance recognizes that “natural communities and ecosystems possess inalienable and fundamental rights to exist and flourish within Blaine Township.” Currently, there are around more than 400 initiatives globally giving rights to nature, varying from local, tribal, national and even international, according to research done by Alex Putzer (PhD student) and Tineke Lambooy (professor Corporate Law) et al. 

Two internationally well-known Right of Nature examples are Ecuador and New Zealand: In 2008, Ecuador became the first country to recognize the Rights of Nature in its Constitution; a landmark achievement. In 2017, the Whanganui River in New Zealand was recognized as a legal personhood, with rights and interests. 

Lambooy, who has been researching the possibilities of giving rights to entities of nature and how that unfolds, even became a Rights of Nature promotor. Lambooy tells: “the Dutch Wadden Sea has been granted the UNESCO World Heritage status and the Natura 2000 status (that is: a nature area with protected status in the European Union). Meanwhile the ecological values of the Sea are deteriorating under pressure of economic developments, such as gas- and salt mining and over-fishing. While the government is developing more and more policy tools, which so far has not supported safeguarding the nature in this area, my research indicates that a more innovative approach is required. Recognizing rights to the Wadden Sea will create a situation in which the Wadden Sea becomes a legal actor and can defend its own interests. If legal personality would be granted to the Wadden Sea, with a mandate to protect the ecological values, the Sea will be able to voice its ecological needs in the decision-making processes on permits for economic and/or infrastructural projects.” 

In the Netherlands several other initiatives to introduce Rights of Nature are being developed. In 2023 Jessica den Outer, Earth-centered Law Expert, published her first book on several Rights to Nature, which was received with grand attention. 

Leonie Vestering (PvdD) on the left and Jessica den Outer on the right
 Leonie Vestering (PvdD) on the left and Jessica den Outer on the right

In the House of Parliament, two political parties (the party that I work for, PvdD and D66) are currently developing two initiatives. D66  prepares a legislative proposal to recognize legal personality to the Wadden Sea. The PvdD develops a legislative proposal to include the concept of rights of nature into the Dutch Constitution. Meanwhile, other groups are working on recognition of right for, for instance, the river Meuse and to recognize the legal standing of a privately-held forest in the middle of the Netherlands, making use of a deed inspired by the Deed of Redemption. 

Leonie Vestering, representative for the PvdD, illustrates: “I see the Rights of Nature as an emancipative legal movement needed to ensure nature’s intrinsic values are recognized and considered in our society and legal system. By initiating a legislative proposal to include the rights of nature into the Constitution, we initiate a discussion on our own role and responsibilities in regard to nature. We are after all part of nature and we need to recognize and act on this for the sake of nature itself, its biodiversity, as well as ourselves.”

Rights to Nature Benefits 

The core benefit of the Rights of Nature is that it challenges the traditional anthropocentric view, acknowledging nature’s intrinsic value and its right to exist and thrive independently of human interests. This approach can lead to stronger legal protections, as societies are prompted to consider the long-term health and viability of ecosystems.

Jessica den Outer conveys this well: “The Rights of Nature is as a tool that promotes a paradigm shift in our relationship with the environment. By recognizing that ecosystems and natural entities have legal standing and their own rights, we can restore the balance between human activities and the natural world. We now have to take nature’s interests into account and place it on equal footing with other interests that may be at play. Moreover, when nature is considered before developing or economic decisions are made, it should compel society to adopt a preventive approach, focusing on avoiding harm rather than simply mitigating the damage caused.”

Jessica den Outer at her book release presentation
Jessica den Outer at her book release presentation

Rights to Nature entities and implications 

How the Rights of Nature are implemented and protected and what this implies is still work in progress. It requires redefining legal concepts, such as personhood, property rights, and standing in court to include nature. There are still questions on the implications of the rights of nature that need to be addressed, such as “would you give citizens the right to enforce its rights on behalf of a nature entity? Or when a river has a right to flow and thrive, does it become liable for flooding?”

The actual implementation and the implication of the Rights of Nature predominantly depend on the type of legal entity that nature or a specific area or species will be given. Some initiatives for instance recognize the rights of the whole ecosystem, like the river in New Zealand, while others focus on more defined natural areas. 

Recognizing legal rights to a river does not make the river liable for flooding or require it to pay compensation. The legal rights may include provisions for the protection and restoration of the river ecosystem, ensuring its access to sufficient water flows, and preventing activities that could harm the river’s health. However, the responsibility for managing and addressing flooding would generally still lie with human actors, such as governments or private entities, rather than with the river itself.

Lambooy elaborates: “The form of the legal entity that guards the rights of the Wadden Sea must be carefully designed. It needs an independent board and  a council with scientific and ecological knowledge to support the board. Similar forms can be found in Spain for the Mar Menor and in Australia for the Yarra River. Independent knowledge institutions can become part of such an ecological council.. Finally, a stakeholder committee, which currently already exists for the Wadden Sea can also become part of the governance structure and advise the board when appropriate. In short, for the Dutch Wadden Sea, various elements are already in place, all we need is a change of the legal framework. 

In the end, specific legal implications and requirements vary significantly, depending on the jurisdiction and the legal system in place. As countries or regions have different approaches to recognizing the legal rights of natural entities, the laws and regulations, as well as the implications differ accordingly. Developing clear and comprehensive legal frameworks that define the rights (a clear mandate), the responsibilities, and the limitations are therefore essential. Finally, implementing rights not only requires a shift in legal frameworks, it also needs widespread societal acceptance and understanding, and I believe we need to start with that first!

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