Is it possible to think of nature as a person? Lessons from the Amazon
Can you imagine the earth, an animal or plant, water or even a rock as a person? Would you be able to see them as holders of rights before the law or the constitution of a country?
Until recently it would have been impossible. We would be told that we were crazy or that we would defend some kind of animistic primitivism. A scandal in front of a way of thinking that has been developed in the last three hundred years in the West under a ceaseless effort to separate humanity from the rest of the world; of a way of thinking and living that insists on explaining nonhuman lives as "nature", a collection of objects available for human use and contaminate.
For the indigenous peoples of the Americas and for much of the world the answer is obvious: yes! For these contemporary inhabitants of the earth, the prerogative of agency, intelligibility, communication and sociality, that is, of the attributes of a person, is extended to the worlds beyond human beings. Animals, plants, water, earth, rock, spirits and winds are more than simple living or nonliving organisms or passive things to human action, but they are alive and active in the conformation of the environments: they are social people with whom everyone must maintain relationships. And if they are social people, they are a constituent part of norms and rules of co-existence: the society in this perspective is more-than-human.
So we lower our guard and contented ourselves with saying that to think of nature as an object is something peculiar to the Eurocentric world. However, it is in the womb of that same world that a transformation begins that leaves us attentive. The recognition of nature as the holder of human rights.
A stranger wakes up to life. Last month the Colombian state decreed that the Amazon is a person. The Colombian Supreme Court ruled a kind of “nature-as-person” climate litigation and determined that the Colombian government must create a plan to combat deforestation in the Amazon, as well as climate change impacts in the country overall. With just four months to do so, the court has ordered the government to take a community-oriented approach and create an intergenerational pact for the life of the Colombian Amazon. Obviously this decision was not based in trees and animals - “entity subject of rights” – but in humans and the future generations. Still, this makes Colombia the first country in South America to designate a portion of the Amazon a “person.”
We’ve seen this happen across the world: in New Zealand, Ecuador, and India. In 2008, Ecuador codified the rights of Pacha Mama within its constitution, incorporating the Andean and Amazonian point of view in their national law of a multi-ethic state. The Articles 71–74 “recognise the rights of nature to respect; the maintenance and regeneration of its functions and processes; its restoration; the limitation or prevention of activities that, for example, might lead to species extinction or negative effects on ecosystems or natural cycles; and the right for people to benefit from the environment”.
CHAPTER SEVEN Rights of nature
Article 71. Nature, or Pacha Mama, where life is reproduced and occurs, has the right to integral respect for its existence and for the maintenance and regeneration of its life cycles, structure, functions and evolutionary processes.
All persons, communities, peoples and nations can call upon public authorities to enforce the rights of nature. To enforce and interpret these rights, the principles set forth in the Constitution shall be observed, as appropriate.
The State shall give incentives to natural persons and legal entities and to communities to protect nature and to promote respect for all the elements comprising an ecosystem.
Article 72. Nature has the right to be restored. This restoration shall be apart from the obligation of the State and natural persons or legal entities to compensate individuals and communities that depend on affected natural systems.
In India the Ganges and Yamuna rivers also have rights as human beings. The Ganges river, considered sacred by more than 1 billion Indians, has become the first non-human entity to be granted the same legal rights as people. A court in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand ordered that the river and its main tributary, the Yamuna, should be accorded the status of living human entities. The decision, means that contamination and damaging the rivers will be legally equivalent to harming a person.
The Indian court cites the Whanganui in New Zealand as example for giving this status to two rivers considered sacred. In New Zealand, a national park has been granted personhood, and a river system is expected to receive the same soon. These welcomed designations, came out of agreements between New Zealand’s government and Maori groups. From 1954 to 2014, The Urewera was an 821-square-mile national park on the North Island, but when the Urewera took effect, the government gave up formal ownership, and the land became a legal entity with “all the rights, powers, duties and liabilities of a legal person”.
May these acts be not just rhetoric or in theory. But let them serve a change of perspective, more respectful of the others modes of existence and more welcoming of life on the planet. That, beyond the letter of the law, it serves to shake our own world and decentralize the Western persons.