A new kind of justice, the quest for an earth-centric legal system

20 July 2016

“Every component of the Earth Community has three rights. The Right to be, the Right to habitat and the right to fulfill its role in the ever renewing processes of the earth community.” – Thomas Berry 

Imagine if legal systems were designed to ensure that people contributed to the health of ecological systems instead of authorizing their degradation.. Imagine a system that empowers defenders of nature to take action against those that seek to destroy and manipulate communities or the environment for their own commercial interests.  Imagine a system that acknowledges that ecosystems have the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate their vital cycles and which have legal standing in a court of law. The Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature affirms that all persons and groups have not only the right, but also the responsibility to protect the rights of nature. In adopting the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth, the Global Alliance condemns all practices of intimidation against defenders of the earth by corporations, states and others; and stands in solidarity with all those affected by such practices.

The persecution and criminalisation of defenders of earth and community rights is escalating. When Global Witness released a report in June stating that 2015 was the deadliest year on record for environmental activists, with three killed every week on average, the global environmental community was already reeling. Two Honduran earth rights activists opposed to a new dam development, Berta Cáceres and Nelson García, were  gunned down in assassinations that had the hallmarks of a para-military operation. Closer to home, South Africa was rocked by the brutal murder of Sikhosiphi “Bazooka” Rhadebe, Chair of the Amadiba Crisis Committee and vocal opponent of a planned open-cast titanium mine on traditional amaPondo lands. While nobody has been held accountable for these crimes, they were intended to send a clear message: defend your land and rights at your own risk, justice is slow - if it comes at all.

Not all cases, thankfully, are marked by murder. But around the world we continue to see those that defend the rights of nature being met with the full force of legal systems that protect the rights of corporations over the rights of communities and the lands that sustain them. The need for a radical shift toward protecting the Earth and local communities is clear.  How this could be done is spelled out in the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth which is being implemented by the International Rights of Nature Tribunal in its global hearings.

“This is a systemic issue and the responses must be systemic.
As Chief Seattle is reported to have said so long ago: ‘What befalls the Earth, befalls the children of the Earth.”
- Cormac Cullinan, President of the Paris Tribunal

The International Rights of Nature Tribunal was established as a global peoples' institution that would afford citizens of the world an opportunity to bring governments and corporations to book for precipitating and allowing ecological destruction. Article 2 of the Peoples’ Convention for the Establishment of the International Rights of Nature Tribunal provides:

“The Tribunal is established to investigate, hear and decide on cases involving alleged violations of the Earth Rights Declaration; to further develop Earth jurisprudence by writing and disseminating judgements that interpret the Earth Rights Declaration and apply the rights and obligations in it to the specific facts of the cases which it hears; to promote both universal acceptance among the peoples of the world that they have a duty to respect the intrinsic rights of all natural beings, and universal observance of the rights and duties contained in the Earth Rights Declaration; and to demonstrate how the application of the rights and duties in the Earth Rights Declaration promote the harmonious co-existence of humans and other beings in a manner that enhances the integrity, health and functioning of the whole Earth community.” 

There is an undeniable relationship between protecting nature and the realisation of other human rights: To defend nature is to defend the human and vice versa. It is with this in mind that defenders of nature should be empowered to defend all human rights - free from the threat of criminalisation, intimidation and violence.

The Tribunal is committed to defending those who defend nature and continues to hear cases about the ‘Defenders of Mother Earth" from around the world. Over and over again the Tribunal has heard of the egregious difficulties that individuals and organisations - and particularly indigenous peoples - who defend the rights of Nature face in their quest for justice for their communities and environment.

In Peru, the Guardians of the Conga Lagoons have conducted mass demonstrations against a large-scale mining project that would bring devastation to the communities who are dependent on this fragile and precious eco-system for life-giving water. The government has responded to these protests with wide-spread arrests and intimidation – thus criminalising these Earth Defenders. Furthermore, the murders of five people have gone un-investigated, and the government opposes any attempt to hold anyone accountable for these heinous crimes.

In Ecuador, the Shuar people vocally opposed the open-pit mining of the Cordillera del Condor – one of the most diverse ecological regions in the country. Attempts to have their opposition heard through the courts in Ecuador were thrown out, without any consideration of the arguments or evidence presented by the petitions.

Just days before Shuar leader, José Tendetza, was due to depart for the International Tribunal’s 2015 hearing in Lima  to testify as a witness to the devastating impacts of deforestation related to the mine, as well as the intimidation of indigenous peoples who opposed the project, he was murdered in a crime that to this day goes unsolved. The Lima hearings were dedicated to his memory.

There was the Bagua case, where a police operation to evict indigenous people and their organisations turned violent, leading to the deaths of 33 people. There was the Chevron-Texaco case where the company used legal terms and media assets in their arsenal to discredit lawyers and divide communities.

The Tribunal seeks to raise awareness about the world-wide persecution of those who are selflessly defending ecosystems from the exploiters that would degrade the environment and destroy the futures of local communities for personal gain.  In its judgements the Tribunal explains how the fundamental rights of both humans and other beings are being consistently violated , what should be done to restore ecological health and human wellbeing and whom the public should hold accountable for doing so.

Yet there is hope. In 2008, Ecuador became the first country to incorporate Rights of Nature in its new constitution stating: 

"Nature or Pachamama, where life is reproduced and exists, has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution.

Every person, people, community or nationality, will be able to demand the recognition of rights for nature before public bodies… The State will motivate natural and juristic persons as well as collectives to  protect nature.

Nature has the right to restoration.

The State will apply 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” - 2008 Constitution of Ecuador, Chapter 7, Articles 71-73

Bolivia soon followed suit in 2011 by developing its own historic law called the Framework Law on Mother Earth and Integral Development for Living Well which states: “Mother Earth is a living dynamic system made up of the undivided community of all living beings, who are all interconnected, interdependent and complementary, sharing a common destiny.”

These two nations and the Global Alliance of the Rights of Nature have recognised the need to build a new kind of justice for Earth and all its inhabitants. We look forward to seeing more and more nations adopting a more earth-centric approach to justice for the betterment of all living things.


For further reading:

The Bagua Case

Re-opening The Wounds of Bagua


Peruvian Indigenous Land Conflict Explained.



The Guardians of the Conga Lagoons

Reporting on the Conga Conflict


Gold Mining and Environmental Plunder in Northern Peru: The Guardians of the Lagoons



Jose Tendetza and The Shuar People

Was this indigenous leader killed because he fought to save Ecuador’s land?


Ecuadorian Indigenous Leader killed days before planned protest at COP20


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