Tamaqua, Pennsylvania made history in 2006 by becoming the first US municipality to recognize legal rights for nature, giving nature legal standing similar to that of an individual or a corporation. Before this landmark decision, the law regarded natural environments as non-entities that could not experience harm or expect restitution.
Over the last two decades, campaigners and communities around the world have secured rights for nature in a variety of contexts, guaranteeing natural environments the right to exist and regenerate free of harm from human activities. Once established, the Rights of Nature provide a basis for defending the environment in court.
Efforts to clinch Rights of Nature provisions—part of a branch of jurisprudence known as Earth Law—often aim to prevent or limit damage to ecosystems from destructive extractive industries such as mining and manufacturing. This was the case for Tamaqua residents, for example, who voted to recognize nature’s legal rights to fight the dumping of toxic mud linked to the local coal industry.
The industrial food system, another example of an extractive industry, is responsible for many environmental harms and is the leading threat to global biodiversity. Recognizing food production’s impact on the environment, recent Rights of Nature initiatives have sought to safeguard the natural world from agriculture, particularly from the negative impacts of intensive animal farming. Building on recent successes, Earth Law and the Rights of Nature represent a promising new legal tool to combat the expansion of industrial animal agriculture.
A Successful Example: Establishing Rights for Mar Menor, Spain
As a prominent example of Earth Law being used to challenge industrial agriculture, a 2022 citizen-led initiative in Spain’s Murcia region successfully secured legal rights for the Mar Menor lagoon. The law recognizes the lagoon ecosystem’s inalienable rights to exist and evolve, along with its rights to conservation, protection, and restoration.
Mar Menor is Europe’s largest saltwater lagoon, covering some 135 sq km. It is separated from the Mediterranean Sea by a strip of sandy land that is a tourism hotspot. Despite its idyllic appearance, a combination of historic mining activities, local agriculture, and decades of tourism development have left the lagoon severely ecologically degraded. Agriculture, more than any other factor, is responsible for the lagoon’s decline.
Eduardo Salazar, a public interest environmental lawyer, is part of the team behind the initiative to recognize the lagoon’s legal rights. Prior to the 2022 initiative, he had spent decades attempting to spur action over the Mar Menor’s ecological problems using conventional environmental law.
Salazar traces the environmental damage to changes in the region’s agricultural model in the 1980s, which brought irrigation-heavy practices to the area. Industrial agriculture, including intensive animal operations, and its associated infrastructure like environmentally-damaging desalination plants, now surround the lagoon.
The ’silent pollution’ of Mar Menor started to become apparent around a decade ago as irrigation carried excess nutrients from artificial fertilizers and manure into the lagoon, causing overgrowth of algae through a process called eutrophication.  The algae turned Mar Menor into what Salazar and many local residents call ‘green soup,’ in which algae overgrowth can block sunlight and starve aquatic life of oxygen.
The scale of the negative impacts of agriculture-driven eutrophication became particularly apparent in 2016 when algae overgrowth caused a mass die-off of fish. Again in 2019, tons of dead aquatic species washed up on the shores of Mar Menor due to excessive algae growth. Experts pointed to agriculture as a leading cause.
Salazar says that due to a distinct lack of inspections and enforcement, along with the slow progression of any legal action through the regional courts, conventional environmental law had accomplished little to prevent harm to the lagoon. For this reason, Salazar describes European environmental legislation as merely “law on paper,” at least in relation to the region of Murcia.
In 2021, in a turning point for the lake, the strong relationship many local people feel for Mar Menor led tens of thousands of local residents to form a human chain around the waterbody after another eutrophication event left millions of aquatic animals lifeless on the lagoon’s shores. One of those present explained that the “act of mourning” was to express regret for the lives lost and “show our determination that it never happens again.” This popular support led to the passage of the law granting Mar Menor legal rights, a pivotal step for beginning to address the ongoing damage to water quality.
The law introduces a new multistakeholder management structure for the lagoon and gives citizens the power to mount legal action in defense of the lagoon’s rights. Work is currently underway to implement a ‘polluter pays’ principle, obliging those responsible for pollution to pay for the work needed to restore the lagoon to health. Salazar emphasizes, however, that “this is not a law against farming, it is a law to save the Mar Menor.”
As the main industry implicated in the Mar Menor’s deterioration, agriculture must ultimately undergo a “transition” to a more sustainable model, with the law potentially assisting farmers to secure funds for the transition. Salazar hopes that, over time, the local agriculture industry will reduce harmful inputs like artificial pesticides and change land management practices to avoid excess nutrient runoff into the lagoon.
Industrial Agriculture and The Limits of Conventional Environmental Law
Eutrophication from excess nutrient runoff is a global problem and one of the most visible impacts of high-input industrial agriculture. In the Mississippi Delta, for example, eutrophication creates a dead zone each year larger than the size of the country of Montenegro, killing aquatic species that are unable to escape the low-oxygen waters. Excess nutrients wash into the Mississippi river from many industrial farming activities, especially confined animal manure and the farming of animal feed crops.
The environmental harms of industrial agriculture—especially industrial animal agriculture—extend beyond eutrophication, threatening organisms and damaging ecosystems worldwide. The UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Environment, David R. Boyd, describes industrial agriculture as an “environmental disaster”. Boyd, who has written a book on the Rights of Nature movement, says industrial agriculture is responsible for “pollution of air, water and soil, excessive water use, exacerbating the climate crisis, and devastating biodiversity and ecosystems.”
As an Associate Professor of Law, Policy, and Sustainability at the University of British Colombia’s Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability, Boyd understands the potential for law to confront the harms of industrial agriculture. He suggests that conventional environmental law is failing to adequately safeguard the natural world from agriculture-related harms because “existing legal structures prioritize the production of fodder for livestock and food for people,“ rather than protection of natural environments.
Boyd argues that conventional environmental law fails to prioritize environmental health “humans are mistakenly perceived as separate from and superior to the rest of nature”, while “natural wonders” are treated as “natural resources for our exclusive use and benefit.” The prevailing orthodoxy—inside and outside of courtrooms—treats non-human natural entities as objects, not subjects. Notably, this is often not the case for corporations, which in many countries have legal personhood status.
Shifting the Rights Paradigm
In The Rights of Nature: A Legal Revolution That Could Save the World, Boyd writes that “the Rights of Nature movement has the potential to create a world where people live in genuine harmony with nature.” This assertion stems from the paradigm-shifting impact of giving species and ecosystems legal and constitutional standing as subjects, with various entity-specific inalienable rights. Accordingly, Boyd explained, these provisions impose responsibilities on people to adapt their behavior to have a “mutually beneficial relationship” with nature.
This idea of the continuity of all life is not new. Many Indigenous peoples worldwide hold traditional worldviews that position other-than-human life as intrinsically valuable and part of an interdependent community of all life. Similarly, many populous global faiths including Islam and Buddhism consider people and the rest of nature to be interconnected. While dominant in the roots of many modern legal traditions in the Global North, Judeo-Christian views of humanity as separate from and superior to the rest of the living world are the global exception rather than the rule. Accordingly, the Rights of Nature notion that it is incumbent on humans to maintain a reciprocal, harmonious relationship with the rest of the living world is compatible with many longstanding human worldviews.
What is unique about the Rights of Nature movement is that it also calls for acknowledging inalienable rights of other than human natural subjects, making “ecocentric” legal codes that have traditionally been anthropocentric. As Boyd puts it, Rights of Nature provisions “place ecological health above economic growth, because rights are paramount.” Boyd further highlights that people’s right to a healthy environment, which the United Nations formally recognized as a universal human right in 2022, is “increasingly interpreted in an ecocentric way,” giving consideration to the interconnected health of people and the rest of nature.
Due to the connections between ecosystem and human health, the new paradigm of Rights of Nature protections also delivers human benefit. In the words of lawyer Constanza Prieto Figelist, director of the legal department for Latin America at Colorado-based nonprofit the Earth Law Center, “securing rights for nature is good for people too.”
Figelist says that the Rights of Nature do not favor “nature in isolation.” Rather, the mechanisms act “as a bridge between human rights, environmental rights (healthy environment), and biocultural rights.” Biocultural rights are communities’ rights to steward their lands according to their traditions and customs. Explaining the value of this “bridge” further, Figelist asserts that Earth Law allows people to hold their governments accountable for ecological harm and encourages “the participation and inclusion of diverse stakeholders, Indigenous peoples and traditional knowledge in implementation structures”.
Figelist sees important potential in the way that Rights of Nature approaches can reorient governance systems away from “the anthropocentric approach that has allowed and fuels degradation and harm by not correctly recognizing and respecting humankind’s relationship with and responsibilities to the entire Earth community.”
A Growing Global Movement
Ecuador became the first nation to enshrine the Rights of Nature in its constitution in 2008. However, enforcement of these constitutional rights has been incomplete, and officials have continued to permit activities that many argue conflict with the rights of the environment. Nonetheless, the legal recognition means that such activities can be challenged in court. For instance, in what the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature’s founder, Natalia Greene, described as a “historic victory”, the country’s constitutional court forbade mining and other extractive activities in the Los Cedros Protected Forest in 2021 on the basis that they would violate the ecosystem’s rights.
Greene says that Latin America has a leading role to play in the Rights of Nature movement, with provisions at the national level in both Ecuador and Bolivia, along with rights established for ecosystems in Colombia and Mexico. But she highlights that considerable efforts are happening elsewhere, such as in Europe.
As the International Association of Constitutional Law has noted, several European nations have at least considered recognizing nature’s rights at a constitutional level, along with a number of initiatives pushing for recognition at an institutional level. In Ireland in 2022, a Citizens Assembly on Biodiversity Loss recommended that its government hold a referendum on constitutional protection for nature, which would include recognition of rights.
Notable international recognition also occurred in 2022 when hundreds of countries signed off on a United Nations biodiversity treaty that highlighted the integral part that concepts like the Rights of Nature have in the agreement’s successful implementation. Rachel Bustamante, Conservation Science and Policy Analyst, at the Earth Law Center, hopes this recognition can “encourage countries to adopt laws and policies that recognize the Rights of Nature as an approach to help meet the targets of the treaty.”
Earth Law and the Rights of Nature in US Law
Recent US Earth Law initiatives have built on the foundation laid by Tamaqua, Pennsylvania, but have yet to yield systemic wins for Earth Law. By 2017, some three dozen communities in ten US states had recognized Rights of Nature. However, efforts to leverage these rights in court have thus far encountered difficulties and resistance related to legal precedents, or the lack thereof.
In 2018, the White Earth Band of Ojibwe people in northwestern Minnesota voted to recognize in tribal law the rights of one of their ancestral staple crops, a species of wild rice known in Ojibwe as manoomin. In 2021, the White Earth community sued the state of Minnesota on manoomin’s behalf over permits issued to tar-sands oil pipeline company Enbridge. However, the lawsuit was ultimately dismissed by the tribal court of appeals due to a lack of precedent in the tribe’s longstanding legal and judicial relationship with the United States.
Similarly, the people of Toledo, Ohio have leveraged the Rights of Nature to fight aquatic pollution from industrial agriculture, among other industries. In 2019, 60% of voters backed an amendment creating a Bill of Rights for Lake Erie. The amendment recognized the lake ecosystem’s inalienable rights to “exist, flourish and naturally evolve” in the face of “continued abuse.” Among its list of abuses, the bill cited “runoff of noxious substances from large scale agricultural practices, including factory hog and chicken farms.”
Agricultural interests immediately challenged the amendment, launching a lawsuit supported by the state of Ohio. In the result of this suit, the Lake Erie Bill of Rights amendment was struck down as a preemption of state law, exceeding the city of Toledo’s legal authority. However, powerful interests had heard the threat posed by the Rights of Nature. The Ohio Chamber of Commerce, with the cooperation of a Republican lawmaker, took swift action behind closed doors to codify language precluding future attempts to secure rights for natural environments.
Similarly, in 2020, voters in Orange County, Florida, overwhelmingly backed recognizing the rights of their wetlands, lakes, and streams. But in what Inside Climate News described as “a major victory for development companies and the agricultural industry”, a judge struck down Rights of Nature provisions in the Orange County Charter in 2022. The judge ruled that existing state law preempted the charter amendment containing the provisions, making them invalid.
While certain instances of Earth Law have faced defeat for overreaching local authority or lacking precedent, there are existing legal precedents can offer hope. For example, existing “pet trust” property laws allowing people to grant property to their pets may provide a stepping stone toward securing the rights of nature more broadly within US law.
Figelist also notes that Rights of Nature is a “flexible discipline that can be incorporated and implemented differently, compatible with distinct legal and economic models.” In other words, the route to successful Rights of Nature provisions differs dependent on the particulars of varying jurisdictions. In the US, people appear to be trying different tactics to find the right route for their situation. Since Lake Erie’s Bill of Rights was effectively nullified, for example, a New York State legislator has introduced formal legislation in the state to create a bill of rights for all the Great Lakes, including Lake Erie.
Furthermore, Bustamante points out that recognition of nature’s rights is “greatly accelerating at the local level” in the US. She highlights that three townships in Washington State have proclaimed rights of the endangered Southern Resident Orcas. This is “a really exciting opportunity for 2023,” Bustamante says, because if other communities join “this could inspire state action.”
Despite the limited success seen by Rights of Nature initiatives in the US to date, Mar Menor’s successful journey from a degraded commons to a recognized rights-bearing entity with legally enshrined protection offers hope and shows the potential impact of leveraging local residents’ emotional connection with features of the environment and other living beings. Growing momentum at local and regional level and the exploration of additional avenues of legal precedent hold promise for future successes for US initiatives supporting the Rights of Nature.
Preventing environmental damage from agriculture and other extractive industries is only part of the Rights of Nature movement’s aim and its potential impact. The movement’s deeper goal is to provoke underlying social change regarding how people view and relate to the rest of the natural world. As Greene has said, the Rights of Nature movement is seeking a societal paradigm shift away from the ingrained anthropocentric mindset and toward a more ecocentric one, reminding people that “you are part of nature, you are nature.”
By removing the artificial separation between people and nature, the Rights of Nature movement represents a promising new tool supporting advocacy for changing attitudes toward the farming and consumption of nonhuman animals and the cultural normalization of industrial agriculture’s harm to people, animals, and the environment.
 J. Velasco et al., “Nutrient And Particulate Inputs Into The Mar Menor Lagoon (Se Spain) From An Intensive Agricultural Watershed,” Water, Air, and Soil Pollution 176, no. 1 (October 1, 2006): 37–56, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11270-006-2859-8.
 David R. Boyd, The Rights of Nature: A Legal Revolution That Could Save the World (ECW Press, 2005).
 See endnote 2.
 See endnote 2.