By Danni Portocarrero
I cannot remember the first time I heard about giving legal rights to nature. My instinctive interest in protecting nature, however, started during my journeys, once mesmerized by the vibrating jungle of Mexico while suddenly being disturbed by screaming chainsaws. It left me with a spark of desire for change and was followed by a course in environmental philosophy in Argentina. A Norwegian professor introduced me to Arne Naess and his beautiful way of relating to the environment, connecting the west with the footsteps of many indigenous people around the globe.
Sometime later I was a student at Uppsala University. My housemate linked me to a lecture with Pella Thiel, the founder of the Swedish association of Nature Rights. I was incredibly excited, thrilled to learn that this knowledge had reached my home. After the lecture I kept in contact with Pella and on a snowy day in the middle of the winter, I was on a train on its way to the capital to meet her again, this time to spread her knowledge through this magazine.
When I arrived at the restaurant, about 15 minutes early, Pella was close behind me talking into her red headset. She was in the middle of a discussion about a mine somewhere and gave me a smile as she pointed out that we still had 15 minutes left before our meeting, so she was going to finish her call first. I relaxed at the table with a tea pretending to mind my own business. When the phone call ended she came to the table, smiled and told me we were going to be joined by Annette from End Ecocide Sweden, who was curious to see what we were up to.
So there I was, with two of Sweden’s greatest voices for nature, at an Indian restaurant in the south of Stockholm. Pella introduced herself as an ecologist, a small-scale farmer and an activist. She went on explaining her long history within the environmental field, talking about her search for something that would lead to a profound change in the unsustainable systems that we currently live in. She wasn’t interested in shallow work with the symptoms of our destructive actions, but wanted a fundamental change in our minds and our economic, political and social systems instead.
She continued saying that if we have a society that builds on fossil fuels and consistent growth then we have a situation that is incredibly vulnerable, and per definition unsustainable. An important dimension of the superficial change that is required in our systems, is the inner change that needs to happen to us and the way that we relate to the world and who we are. “This is what I do, I lecture about values and educate in ecophsychology. This is what led me to the rights of nature.”
I asked Pella how she would explain the concept of Nature Rights to someone that has never heard it before. She compared it to human rights; humans are subjects with rights, needs and interests.
We look upon the earth as an object, a resource for us to use, our culture doesn’t give rights to other kinds of life. The movements of nature rights state that this is a misunderstanding and that all life should have rights. This can be codified into our modern institutions in a way that the western culture can understand. When humans and companies have rights, but nature does not, the effect will always be systematic exploitation. To change this, we need to create a balance.
In practice, this recognition would enable lawyers or everyday people to represent entities of nature in our court systems, arguing for their right to exist regardless of their benefit or economic value to humans.
In 2014, the environmental organisation Lodyn – one of many that Pella works through – organized the first ever conference about ecocide and nature rights in Sweden. The then Deputy Prime Minister Åsa Romson attended the meeting. Polly Higgins was also there, a British lawyer who is fighting to make ecocide an international crime. Another conference followed in 2017, which is when the Swedish organisation for Nature Rights took shape.
Globally, 2017 was an important time of recognition, giving result to years of struggle in both New Zealand and India, as two grand rivers were suddenly recognised as legal entities. The movements had circulated around Latin America long before that. Ecuador, for instance, celebrated 10 years of legal rights of the earth in their very own constitution in 2018. Bolivia also played a significant role, presenting the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth in 2010.
When asked how the Swedish society reacts to these new ideas, Pella explains that the concept, as expected, proves to be fundamentally hard to grasp. Therefore, there is a need for something concrete. The organisation now plans to shift its focus to the Baltic sea and Vättern (one of Sweden’s largest lakes), starting with the attempt to give legal protective rights to the lake. This action could possibly help to introduce our society to the Nature rights movement.
Swedes are among the world’s most urbanized people. On the one hand, we look upon ourselves as nature loving humans who take good care of our environment. On the other hand, most of us live an everyday life where we don’t realize our dependence on nature. This development has led us to look away from the earth and explore new planets, instead of reconnecting and healing this one.
Finally, I asked both Annette and Pella what they thought that students could do to help with these movements. They encouraged searching for more knowledge in the field and connecting with people who are already involved. Pella recommended reading “Wild Law” by Cormac Cullinan, a South-African lawyer who led the drafting of the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth from Bolivia. If intrigued to join them in this global effort to protect the rights of nature, one could also attend the next Swedish conference in may 2019. I know I will.
Danni Portocarrero is a nomad soul that came to Uppsala in the fall of 2018 to finish a degree in development studies, before that she was going from place to place in the world. She loves writing, red wine, naked honesty and yoga. Within her field of study, she’s very passionate about nature rights. She’s writing for Uttryck to share moments, meetings and reflections from her past adventures.
Illustration: Ellen Storgård