What Canadian laws should the US adopt?

Should nature be legally protected?

"We don't see ourselves as the owners of the wild rice," says Frank Bibeau, a lawyer for the Anishinaabe people, an indigenous group living in the north of the United States and Canada. "We see ourselves as symbiotic partners, as equal beings before God."

When harvesting, the Anishinaabe thresh the wild rice, also called 'manoomin', and many seeds fly into the air.

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"A lot of rice is scattered in all directions and sown again with it. About half or a little more falls into our canoes - we use that as food," explains Bibeau. "We are part of the natural process of overseeding ourselves."

Wild rice has been part of the diet of the anishinaabe in the Great Lakes area of ‚Äč‚ÄčNorth America for many generations. To stop an oil pipeline that is now to be built through the ecosystem, Bibeau drafted a new tribal law law that gives Manoomin rice its own rights.

According to the non-governmental organization Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), which Bibeau advised on the legislation, manoomin rice is the first plant to be granted its own rights. All over the world, various rivers, forests and nature as a whole are already protected by "nature rights".

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Indigenous approaches to legislation

"Conventional environmental laws are actually there to regulate how we deal with nature," explains Mari Margil from CELDF. "The consequences of these regulations have been so devastating that people around the world are now saying that we need a major shift in our relationship with nature."

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More and more politicians and environmental organizations argue that indigenous peoples are the most reliable keepers of our planet. Giving nature rights could also anchor its views more firmly in broader society.

In this sense, Ecuador became the first country to have natural rights anchored in its constitution in 2008. In it, nature is personified by Pachamama, who is worshiped in the Andes as the goddess of the earth.

Bolivia and Uganda have now also incorporated natural rights into their constitutions, and Sweden has already proposed a similar constitutional amendment.

Indigenous protests against a pipeline in Canada

A healthier relationship with nature

Ascribing its own rights to nature cannot only be used to prosecute polluters. It also questions the kind of environmental protection that sees nature merely as a kind of service provider and only calculates the economic value of clean air, water, biodiversity or nature reserves.

In New Zealand, the Iwi Maori people were no longer allowed to enter the sanctuary around the Whanganui River in New Zealand, although the tribe had hunted and fished there sustainably for generations. In 2017, the conflict was resolved by declaring the river a separate legal entity that does not belong to either the state or the indigenous peoples.

The professor of Maori law, Jacinta Ruru, sees it as groundbreaking that New Zealand law now takes into account the particularly close relationship of indigenous peoples with the environment - and makes no difference whether something is good for people or nature.

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"My people compare the veins in their arms to the rivers in the country," explains Ruru. "For us, our own health, happiness and well-being of a person is completely connected to the health and well-being of nature around us."

Strategic compromises

Ruru says it is too early to assess the environmental impact of the Whanganui River's new legal status in New Zealand. It also remains to be seen whether the new legal status for Manoomin rice will actually meet the interests of the pipeline investors.

In Ecuador, the new constitution was used to prevent the construction of plantations and roads that threatened forest areas. But the new rules in the constitution were not enough to change an entire economic system based on economic growth. In many cases brought against companies by indigenous groups, economic interests have triumphed over the rights of Pachamama, the nature goddess.

Critics also point out that the decision to make rivers and forests legal entities has more to do with Western legal systems than indigenous notions of the deification of nature.

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"There is a strategic relationship between indigenous groups and the rights of nature," said political scientist Mihnea Tanasescu, who wrote a book on the subject in Ecuador. "But there is not necessarily a similarity between the philosophical approaches, because rights as such correspond to a very western legal conception."

Michelle Maloney of the Australian NGO Earth Laws Alliance is currently writing a bill based on Aboriginal traditions, for whom every law is based on the relationship with the land.

"The concept of the legal person is gaining attention in the world right now," she says, because "the average Western lawyer understands this concept."

The Ganges and Yamuna rivers in Asia are also now legal entities, as are each of the hundreds of rivers in Bangladesh. Colombian courts have repeatedly ruled that the rights of rivers and forests have been violated by pollution and deforestation.

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These rights are based on specific local indigenous ideas. The US organization CELDF has played a key role in establishing the rights of nature in legislation around the world.

In 2006, CELDF worked on the world's first law granting nature rights - a local ordinance that banned toxic waste disposal in Pennsylvania. Since then, says Margil, nearly 40 laws for the rights of nature have been passed in the United States. Many have been initiated by activists who have no indigenous connections but are disappointed with a legal system that does not recognize damage to nature until it affects people's health or livelihoods.

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A change of discourse

One of these cases hit the international media last year. Residents of the city of Toledo in the US state of Ohio, which lies on the banks of the heavily polluted Lake Erie, voted to give the lake its own rights. A nearby farm, however, initiated legal proceedings to protect the rights of the agribusiness.

The Whanganui River in New Zealand has long been a source of conflict

Since the proposed bill was sidelined by Ohio lawmakers, activists have been trying to revive it. Their protests make it clear that the current legal system only treats nature as property, but recognizes companies as legal entities.

"Often times, people don't think about the invisible systems that rule our world," says Maloney. "As a start - and to actually change the public discussion - the rights of nature can be very helpful."