From Exploitation to Empowerment: The Rise of Nature’s Legal Rights

The Taskforce on Nature Trade was developed as a response to the rapid rise in markets that exclusively deal with trade in nature. In December 2022, they wrote a report which examines and focuses, inter alia, on how environmental law can sufficiently protect nature. It is essential to recognise that the relationship between humans and the environment has long been imbalanced, with nature being treated as a mere resource to exploit. However, there is a paradigm shift currently that advocates for the recognition of the inherent rights of nature. The rights of nature model and the concept of legal personhood are at the forefront of this shift.

The rights of nature

One of the pioneers, Ecuador, established the rights of nature in its constitution in 2008. Several jurisdictions have also taken the same path regarding recognising the rights of nature. In 2010, Bolivia passed a law on the rights of Mother Earth. In this law, Mother Earth is defined as a collective subject of public interest and declares both Mother Earth, human communities and ecosystems as holders of inherent rights specified in the law. In 2016, the Constitutional Court of Colombia declared the Artato River as a legal entity with rights, emphasising its importance for the environment and the communities dependent on it. A court in the northern Indian State of Uttarakhand recognised the Ganges and Yamuna Rivers as legal persons in 2017. The rationale of this ruling was to protect and conserve water bodies from pollution and degradation.

This model, therefore, carries substantial legal implications for environmental protection and sustainability, transcending individual country borders. Noteworthy implications include:

  1. Environmental governance: Granting legal rights to nature empowers communities and individuals to take legal action on behalf of ecosystems. This results in improved environmental governance and accountability, ensuring that natural resources are preserved.

  2. Indigenous rights and traditional knowledge: The rights of nature model aligns strongly with the traditional ecological wisdom of indigenous communities. In Bolivia, indigenous communities have been at the forefront of advocating for the rights of Mother Earth. And so, recognising nature’s rights preserves and respects indigenous rights and their role as custodians of the land.

Legal Personhood

Natural entities have been conferred legal personhood to protect them from degradation and extinction. The legal personhood model reinforces the environmental value of natural resources and the need for their protection. In New Zealand, the Whanganui River was granted legal personhood recognising its spiritual and cultural significance to the Maori tribe and ensuring its long-term preservation. The Aletsch Glacier, the largest glacier in the Alps, was declared a living entity by Swiss Legal Scholars in 2019, emphasising the need to protect this natural wonder from the impact of climate change. Mexico’s Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was granted legal personhood in 2021, providing it with legal rights and protection against activities that may harm its ecological integrity.

This model also carries unique legal implications, which include:

  1. Representation and Legal Standing: granting Legal Personhood to natural entities allows designated guardians and representatives to act on their behalf. This facilitates legal action against activities that harm the environment and ensures that the voices of nature are heard and considered. Several countries have adopted this model, emphasising the global resonance of the legal personhood approach.

  2. Economic Valuation and Consideration: The Legal Personhood model recognises natural entities’ economic and ecological value. It opens possibilities for the development of nature-based markets and incentivises the protection and preservation of ecosystems.


The Rights of Nature and Legal Personhood models offer a promising framework for redefining our relationship with the environment. These models have sparked a global movement towards recognising the intrinsic value of nature and granting it legal rights. Countries like Ecuador and New Zealand have paved the way and inspired others to adopt these models. Examples such as the Whanganui River and Aletsch Glaciers showcase the significance of these models in ensuring environmental conservation and recognising the cultural, spiritual, and ecological value of these areas.

As the world grapples with environmental challenges, these models offer innovative legal frameworks which recognise nature’s intrinsic value and prioritise the well-being of nature. This fosters a more sustainable and equitable future as the models promote a shift towards harmonious coexistence with nature, acknowledging the interdependence of all living beings on this planet. Through such transformative legal approaches, we can create a world where nature thrives and future generations inherit a healthy and resilient planet.

Rights of Nature 2008, Ecuador

Rights of Nature 2008, Ecuador

Ecuador’s groundbreaking move to establish the rights of nature in its constitution marked a significant shift in environmental policy worldwide. This recognition of nature’s inherent rights translates into an obligation for the government to ensure the respect and preservation of various life cycles, structures, functions, and evolutionary processes, effectively positioning nature as a subject with legally enforceable rights.

About the Author

Scott Seivwright is a co-founder of Agile20Reflect and the Being Beyond Better community. He is also a co-founder of 3B ESG, a consultancy that helps large organizations fulfill their ESG commitments and drive prosperity through sustainability strategy outcomes. Scott is dedicated to guiding organizations and individuals through the intricacies of change, empowering people, and pioneering transformative solutions that make a positive and lasting impact on humanity and the planet. With his expertise, Scott enables individuals and businesses to navigate the ever-evolving landscape of today’s world.