We've all heard of human rights and civil rights, but what about the rights of nature? A growing global movement is working to give plants, animals and ecosystems some of the same legal protections as humans, and in some countries, it's leading to new legislation.
Panama is one of the only nations in the world with a country-wide rights of nature law. The legislation was just used to help shut down one of the largest copper mines in the world.
Callie Veelenturf was the driving force behind the law. The 31-year-old Massachusetts native is a marine biologist who has been studying sea turtles for almost a decade. Veelenturf is a National Geographic explorer who founded the Leatherback Project, which tracks and protects the giant but endangered turtle species. The leatherbacks are threatened by fishing nets, rising seas that erode their nesting beaches and plastic pollution.
Veelenturf has made it her life's work to protect these creatures, but that work took an unexpected turn in 2018, when she took legal action to protect herself from sexual harassment.
"I realized that we can't defend the rights of nature as I had just defended my rights, because nature largely has no rights in our legal systems," Veelenturf explained.
Veelenturf said she "Googled rights of nature" and found a book about saving the world by giving nature rights gave her life a new purpose. The book, "The Rights of Nature: A Legal Revolution That Could Save the World," was published by the Green Prize for Sustainable Literature winner David Boyd in 2017. The concept is that, like humans, all living things and ecosystems have the fundamental right to exist and thrive and that nature's rights, like humans, can be defended in court.
"I was like, 'This is a mission of mine. I have to do what I can to advance this concept,'" Veelenturf said. "I think it's important that this concept not become radicalized because it's based in factual, scientific need."
The concept isn't about protecting an individual tree or sea turtle, but about defending an entire ecosystem, like the Amazon rainforest or blocking development that would decimate wildlife populations.
It's a bolder approach than environmental protections, which limit how much humans can exploit nature, instead of granting that nature has a right not to be exploited.
"It prioritizes the needs of the ecosystems and not the needs of humanity," Veelenturf explained.
Veelenturf proposed the idea to Panama's first lady and members of the country's parliament.
"It was immediately something everybody latched onto, and that was so encouraging to me, because it was the opposite of what I was expecting really," Veelenturf said.
Congressman Juan Diego Vasquez helped pass the legislation. Panama now joins Ecuador and Bolivia as the only countries in the world that recognize the rights of nature on a national level.
"Every Panamanian citizen, every human, can use this bill, go to court, and make sure that we defend the rights of nature," Vasquez said. "This will not be a bill that it's gonna be left in a cabinet. It's going to be used when it needs to be used."
Just last week, Panama's Supreme Court used the new law to effectively shut down a $10 billion coller mine that opponents said threatened tropical jungles and water supplies.
In Ecuador, another copper mine was blocked because it violated the rights of a nearby forest. While India does not have a nationwide law, a court in the country has recognized the rights of the Ganges River, ruling that polluting it is like harming a person.
Similar movements are underway in the United States, where dozens of local communities in 10 states have some laws recognizing nature's legal rights. Seattle recently recognized the rights of salmon to pass through its dams, while North Carolina is considering giving rights to the Haw River ecosystem, according to the Center for Democratic and Environmental Rights.
"It's just exciting every time. It never gets old," Veelenturf said. "What we're doing now is obviously not working, and so this provides a different way of interacting with nature. I think we're at a point now where it's worth a shot."
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