Wednesday, 6 December, 2023

A Debate On The Rights Of Nature

Shrawan Sharma

With the climate change posing a survival threat to humanity, the political discourse has undergone a drastic change. It has acquired new language, logic and content after the nations faced water, health, food, energy and climate crises globally. Along with the traditional determinants of politics such as ideology, demography, cultural values and religious beliefs, the disruptions in the environmental systems have become driving factor of politics. Currently, the health of the planet earth as well as its ecological balance has become a matter of serious concern as climate change has hit them, creating a set of problems for governance and social order.

In 1972, law professor Christopher D. Stone published a book ‘Should Trees Have Standing? Law, Morality, and the Environment’ that impacted the US Supreme Court’s verdict on Sierra Club v. Morton case in 1972. It has, for the first time, established the right of nature that is now perceived as a legal remedy to the environmental crisis facing the people worldwide.

Climate change
Through his Gaia hypothesis, British scientist James Lovelock has proved that biosphere, atmosphere, ocean and soil interact with each other to maintain their own existence. Lovelock has also described that the sun was twenty five times warmer before the life began on earth. This was indeed a startling revelation about the planet we live on. Millions of researches on earth, ocean, atmosphere, biodiversity and microbial organism have already been carried out. A common finding of all studies clearly shows that the earth’s climate has rapidly been changing owing to the increased global warming.

If we come to the foundation of our civilisation, the Vedic and Upanishads literatures have presented many astounding facts about nature. In Hinduism, nature has been treated as God or divine entity. The Vedic epoch has shown its intelligence by decentralising power to ensure that the air, water and energy are kept intact. Rigveda says that who do not know about the tree are fool. It has underscored the importance of trees for all - Sanyasi or the ordinary beings. The Hindu philosophy believes that divine spirit exists in all living and non-living beings, including air, water, earth and trees in different forms. Hinduism defines the role of all living and non-living creatures as they observe their rituals as per the rules of divine authority. It means everything has soul — atma.

Upanishads says "everything is Brahma," which means every object has life. This is the animist view of life. For instance, Mount Kailash and other mountains have life; they have Brahma within them. This forms very foundation of the right of nature. The Hindu philosophy does not confine the study within the relationship between human and society. Rather it has linked earth with universe, atmosphere and galaxies. Substantive ideas can be found in Hinduism about the inherent rights of nature. There are no effects without cause. If you damage others, you will eventually hurt yourself, it says. It has envisaged the concept of Vanaprastha which means the people should retire to the forest in the third stage of life to live a life with limited resources.

Failure of the governments worldwide to keep temperature below 1.5 degree Celsius and lessen fossil fuel use has led to hazardous climate change impacts. To achieve the objectives of Paris Agreement and Kyoto Protocol, a global pressure is piling up on rich nations responsible for the excessive greenhouse emissions. As these legal instruments are not sufficient to check global warming, many nations had followed the revolutionary idea of the right of nature to fight the climate change. While Ecuador, a small coastal country of Pacific Ocean, incorporated the right of nature in its constitution in 2009, and Article 34 of the constitution of Bolivia also guarantees right to the environmental assets. The Supreme Court of Colombia recognised the Colombian Amazon as a “subject of rights”.

In 2017, New Zealand granted special legal status to Whanganui River, Mount Taranaki and Te Urewera national park. In 2016, Italy introduced a law to recognise a green economy that has given extra ordinary benefits to green products. Sweden's effort to criminalise ecocide (mass destruction of nature) has drawn the attention of UNO. It has asked International Court of Justice (ICJ) to bring ecocidal law under its jurisdiction. If the ICJ agrees on this, this will be a milestone in addressing climate and biodiversity crises. The acts of selling sands and stones by extracting Chure hills of Nepal will fall under the jurisdiction of the ICJ and be dealt as crime against nature. US Justice William O. Douglas gave verdict that all those who share a purposeful relationship with any given environmental body should have a locus-standi to protect the environment.

Melting glaciers
Let’s come to Nepal endowed with big rivers that flow from the Himalayas and go to the Bay of Bengal. Nepal’s rivers constitute 72 per cent of total water of the Ganges River during the dry season. Compared to other parts of the world, the Himalayas have been hard hit by the global warming. Melting glaciers has posed a challenge to scientists on how to save the Third Pole that stores a large amount of snow after the Antarctica. The Himalayas are the source of drinking water and irrigation for around 1.5 billion people of South Asia. Nepal's development potential lies in rivers.

The country has prioritised hydropower as one of the major exportable products to cut soaring trade imbalance. Scientists have predicted the mountains will completely melt and there will be no more by 2100 if global warming continues to increase at current rate. If their forecast becomes true, what would be the fate of Nepal’s hydropower projects based on snow-fed rivers?

Forests are major sources of livelihoods for many Nepalis while Himalayas form the basis of biodiversity. Its loss will bring disaster to the country’s economy and social life. The green economy as well as the constitutional recognition of right of nature greatly helps save our Himalayas, forests and rivers. If Nepal adopts the right of nature, it will join with other victim countries to make its voice louder in international climate change negotiation, impelling the big nations, including India and China to consider Nepal's constitutional provision. At the same time, they will be mindful of not hurting nature while pushing their development works and upholding the values of constitutions of other countries.

(The author is associated with the Right of Nature campaign.)