The rights of nature

Deer

Deer at Richmond Park in London. 

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The Green party wants to give nature rights equivalent to people through a Rights of Nature Act.

It seems very simple. But it could be revolutionary. 

As a consultant ecologist, I can very confidently say that the regeneration of nature isn’t happening, either in the UK or around the world. We need a change of approach, to give nature inalienable rights. Here’s how we can do that.

First, it’s important to be clear that our current approach isn’t working. Since 1970 there has been a 68 percent decrease in population sizes of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and fish across the globe.

In the UK 15 percent of species are threatened with extinction. And already the UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world. The pace that we are losing nature is accelerating and there is no sign of a reversal in this trend. 

Biodiversity

A change in approach is needed. The Green party set down a marker for what that change needs to be at their party conference in October: giving nature rights equivalent to people through a Rights of Nature Act.

That may sound bizarre – how can a forest defend itself in court? – but it has precedent. Around the world, often led by indigenous communities, rights of nature acts are giving ecosystems inalienable rights - possibly the most famous example is in Ecuador, where the rights of nature are enshrined in the national constitution.

And when you think about it, giving nature rights is not so different to giving companies legal rights. If government policies can be changed or blocked for fear of infringing on companies’ rights, why should nature not have the same, or even greater, status?

An example of what giving legal rights to nature would look like in practice can be seen clearly in relation to planning law. Currently in the UK - and most other countries, planning regulations require ‘net gain’ in biodiversity when development occurs.

What that in effect means is that developers are free to destroy hundreds-year-old habitats as long as they plant a few saplings elsewhere. And often, not even that gets done as councils lack capacity to oversee delivery of “biodiversity net gain”.

It seems very simple. But it could be revolutionary. 

Protections

What a Rights of Nature Act would do would be to reject the principle of 'net gain' in favour of outlawing harm to nature in the first place.

Put that way, it seems very simple. But it could be revolutionary. The Green party’s policy, if enacted, could be the most far-reaching in the world. The Rights of Nature Act would be backed by a massive regeneration programme incorporating both land and aquatic environments.

This will encompass all current wildlife sites - islands of biodiversity - but will also include the land and sea that connects them together and should be reclaimed by nature to create viable natural systems across the landscape.

The entire network will receive ironclad protection, with a fully-funded - through progressive taxation like a land value tax - Commission for Nature to oversee and enforce the protections.

Destruction

And perhaps more important than anything else, the Greens’ new policies include measures to bring people closer together with nature, to mend this broken relationship so that people can once again appreciate that essential contribution that nature makes to their mental and physical health – to their very survival.

Natural spaces should be accessible to all, through active and public transport, and there needs to be re-naturalisation of towns and cities, driven by the people that live there. 

The Green party would ensure that the vital role of nature is properly reflected in the National Curriculum and that all of our children are able to directly experience nature through outdoor activities designed to help them learn and care for the natural environment. 

Protection and regeneration of nature must be at the heart of our society and at the heart of all policy considerations. That is what this new move from the Greens seeks to establish. Let it be a marker for what we need to do to halt the destruction of nature and rebalance our relationship with the natural world.

This Author

Jonathan Elmer is the Green party national spokesperson for the natural world.

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