Changing Policies

It is tempting to dismiss international discourse as cheap talk that has little effect on policy. However, the international mobilization around buen vivir and the rights of nature is influencing policy decisions made by organizations and governments at all levels. A growing number of governments are joining Ecuador and Bolivia in adopting rights of nature legal provisions. In 2012, India’s Supreme Court recognized under the Constitution that “human interest[s] do not take automatic precedence [over the environment] and humans have obligations to nonhumans independently of human interest.”[1] New Zealand’s government has recognized the Whanganui River and its tributaries as a legal entity, with rights to exist and flourish as an integrated, living whole.[2] Mexico’s 2013 Environmental Law for the Protection of the Earth similarly recognizes the Earth’s rights to exist, to maintain an equilibrium in its natural cycles and processes, and to regenerate if damaged.[3] In the United States, more than three dozen municipalities, including Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, have adopted local laws recognizing the rights of nature. Many of these are used to prohibit hydraulic fracking. Similar local laws are being created in Brazil.[4]

The global spread of rights of nature legal provisions demonstrates the concrete effects of international programming by members of the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature. NGOs like the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, Earth Law Center, Global Exchange, Earth Laws Network, The Pachamama Alliance, and the Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide spurred and helped draft many of the laws mentioned above. Yet, as happens with nodal governance, efforts to promote rights of nature have moved beyond the Global Alliance. Even mainstream global environmental organizations now place the rights of nature at the center of their programming. For example, in 2012, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)—“the world’s oldest and largest global environmental organization”—made the rights of nature “the fundamental and absolute key element for planning, action and assessment at all levels and in all areas of intervention including in all decisions taken with regard to IUCN’s plans, programmes and projects.”[5] As part of this resolution, IUCN members also called for a new program to advocate the rights of nature globally. It and other organizations are part of a new global governance network dedicated to implementing a new global idea—the rights of nature—as a means for living in harmony with nature.

To facilitate their efforts, rights of nature advocates created a new international governing institution—The International Tribunal for the Rights of Nature. This “people’s tribunal” investigates, tries, and decides cases involving alleged violations of the 2010 Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth (discussed earlier). Domestic rights of nature laws are also considered when violations occur in jurisdictions covered by these laws. The tribunal was proposed by Alberto Acosta, president of the Constituent Assembly that drafted Ecuador’s pioneering Constitution (again illustrating the global effects of Ecuador’s experiment with buen vivir). The idea was inspired by the International War Crimes Tribunal and the Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal, established by citizens to identify, investigate, and publicize human rights violations.[6] Just as these tribunals provided social pressure to create and strengthen international human rights law, the rights of nature tribunal is meant to foster international rights of nature law. While the tribunal’s decisions do not carry the force of formal law, they serve several purposes, articulated in Article 2 of the tribunal’s constitution:

[1] to further develop Earth jurisprudence by writing and disseminating judgments that interpret the Earth Rights Declaration and apply the rights and obligations in it to the specific facts of the cases which it hears; [2] to promote both the 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 [3] to demonstrate how the application of the rights and duties of 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.[7]

The first hearing of the International Tribunal for the Rights of Nature was held in Quito, Ecuador, on January 17, 2014. Renowned scholar and environmental activist Dr. Vandana Shiva presided over the hearing, along with nine other prominent thinkers, lawyers, and activists from seven countries and five continents. The tribunal considered nine alleged violations of the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth and, for Ecuadorian cases, of the Ecuadorian Constitution. Cases involved the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, destruction of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, hydraulic fracking in the United States, and open-pit mining in Ecuador, among other violations. The tribunal has since met twice more, most recently in parallel to the 2015 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. The timing was meant to highlight the inadequacy of traditional approaches to addressing climate change—the quintessential global problem— and to raise awareness of alternatives rooted in buen vivir principles.

As the 2015 deadline for the Millennium Development Goals approaches, the above actions are shaping debates over how sustainable development should be conceptualized in a post-2015 development agenda. A significant number of governmental, intergovernmental, and nongovernmental organizations now insist that the dominant anthropocentric development paradigm be replaced with a new, more ecocentric development paradigm based on living in harmony with nature. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is among those leading the charge. The secretary general regularly highlights the deficiencies of perpetual economic growth and urges a new paradigm “for living in harmony with nature" based on ecological economics. A 2013 report by Ban Ki-moon is illustrative. In it, he writes that constructing this new paradigm requires

the redefinition of humankind’s needs and the recognition of the need to move beyond the unsustainable pursuit of ever-increasing economic growth without concern for social development and nature. Harmony with nature implies that people do not assume that they have unlimited resources or means. ... Harmony with nature also calls for a rehabilitation of the human spirit, the concept of holism, and for its relevance as a factor in the pursuit of a lifestyle that respects the rights of nature. ...

This means adopting a new paradigm that includes harmonious relationships with nature. . A paradigm for a new economics must go beyond neoclassical and environmental economics and learn instead from the concepts of deep ecology, the rights of nature and systems theory. ... In the discussions leading up to the formulation of the post- 2015 development agenda, nature must be placed at the core of sustainable development. (United Nations 2013a, 12, 16)

In response to the secretary general’s call, the UN General Assembly dedicated its 2014 Interactive Dialogue on Harmony with Nature to examining “key characteristics of a new, non-anthropocentric paradigm [for sustainable development] and further [identifying] strategies on how the society subsequently would need to function consistent with this paradigm.”[8] The General Assembly’s 2016 dialogue is focused on strategies for promoting “Earth Jurisprudence” (i.e., rights of nature laws) worldwide.[9]

  • [1] India’s Supreme Court decision and legal documents pertaining to rights of nature provisionsin other countries are available at (accessed February 14, 2016).
  • [2] Agreement Entitles Whanganui River To Legal Identity,, August 30, 2012, (accessed March16, 2016).
  • [3] (accessed March 16, 2016).
  • [4] For information on local rights of nature ordinances in the U.S. and Brazil, see (accessed March 16, 2016).
  • [5] IUCN 2012, 147-148. IUCN’s website states that its members include “more than 1,200 government and NGO Members and almost 11,000 volunteer experts in some 160 countries,” (accessed March 18, 2016).
  • [6] Nobel Prize winner Bertrand Russell created the International War Crimes Tribunal in 1966to investigate human rights abuses committed against Vietnamese peoples resulting from U.S. military intervention in Vietnam (Duffett 1968). Inspired by the Russell Tribunal, law experts and rightsactivists established The Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal to investigate and provide judgments on violations of human rights around the world (Blaser 1992).
  • [7] Available online at (accessedMarch 16, 2016).
  • [8] UN General Assembly, Interactive Dialogue on Harmony with Nature, April 22, 2014, (accessed January18, 2015).
  • [9] UN General Assembly, “Sustainable Development: Harmony with Nature.” Report of the Second Committee, December 14, 2015, static/55914fd1e4b01fb0b851a814/ t/567a0263a12f445fc5bd9823/1450836579863/HwN+Resolution+14+Dec+2015.pdf (accessed March 16, 2016).
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