Rights of Nature – More than a Dream, a Viable Framework for our Planet

UN Climate Change Conference COP17 –  Durban, South Africa – December 2011

My dream is that we as a human race will one day remember our connection to Mother Earth in a way that transforms the way we relate to ourselves, to each other, and to our planet. Culturally we have separated ourselves from the natural world that surrounds and sustains us.  Legally and figuratively we treat nature as property to be bought, sold, and consumed.

Rights of Nature is more than a dream.  It is a viable framework for our planet, rooted in the recognition that just as people have rights, so does Nature.  To become reality, Rights of Nature requires both a cultural transformation in our relationship with earth as well as a redesign of our governance systems. No small task.

Inspired by Doris Ragettli, an expanding group of friends and colleagues are committed to delivering 1 million signatures in support of the Universal Declaration for the Rights of Mother Earth to the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in June 2012. In November 2011 a group of colleagues and I traveled to Durban, South Africa for the UN COP17 Climate Change Conference to advocate for Rights of Nature as a step toward Rio.

No word for nature

In South Africa, the legacy of apartheid is still raw. Durban brought home the recognition that our global economic system is the equivalent of environmental apartheid.  It is grounded in the deep separateness of human and corporate dominance over nature and our planet.  We are seeing the devastating results of this apartheid through climate change, global warming and other environmental effects.

At COP17 an estimated 12,000 representatives of UN member states and non-governmental agencies met with the intention of negotiating solutions for climate change.  In reality two conferences were held in parallel: the official “inside” conference of accredited participants and the Peoples Space “outside” at the University of KwaZulu-Natal Howard College.  Most outside held little hope that the negotiations inside would turn the tide on the condition of our planet.  Many among the civil society contingent declared the official meetings a Conference of Polluters.

I was joined by international colleagues from the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature, former Bolivian Ambassador to the UN Pablo Solon, Indigenous leader Tom Goldtooth, Randy Hayes Founder of Rainforest Action Network, South Durban community activist Desmond D’sa and others. Our objective was to put a broad, visible face on Rights of Nature and to enroll individuals and organizations in the global advocacy for Rights of Nature.

To that end, we hosted multiple formal presentations and panel discussions on Rights of Nature both inside and outside COP 17. On Saturday December 3rd, 8,000 people participated in a Global Day of Action with a day long march through Durban to the beach.  During the march we bounced ten 4-foot-diameter beach balls with Earth Rights Now! written in five languages above our heads. As the day progressed, the balls took on a life of their own with the delighted crowd. On December 6 we co-hosted a Toxic Tour of South Durban.  Two standing-room-only bus loads of advocates and journalists got first hand exposure to the environmental racism of highly-polluted South Durban and ended with a Rights of Nature rally at an Engen Refinery.

Durban South CoastIn the end, the COP negotiations were extended 30 hours beyond the scheduled Conference close. As feared, the final COP17 agreements are projected to leave our planet on track for warming 3 – 4 degrees by the end of this century – with Africa heating up at an even faster rate.  “Delaying real action until 2020 is a crime of global proportions,” said Nigerian Nnimmo Bassey, Chair of Friends of the Earth International. “An increase in global temperatures of 4 degrees Celsius, permitted under this plan, is a death sentence for Africa, Small Island States, and the poor and vulnerable worldwide.”

We can no longer afford to continue the path of the corporate-led agenda of the UN COP process. My friend Cormac Cullinan (Author, WildLaw) points out that we are trying to win a game in which the rules are working against us.  We need a new set of rules for our governance and economic systems.

Rights of Nature provides a new framework that honors our rightful relationship with nature…it is the message that gives hope to Durban, COP17 and beyond!

Join us by signing our petition in support of Rights of Nature at

For more information on Rights of Nature at COP17  visit Rights of Nature Advocates at COP17.