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What’s So Special About Humans?

We take for granted that humans have rights. Courts say corporations do, too. Now, there’s growing interest in rights for Nature and animals.
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Indigenous Insights

Orangutan photo by Natalie Manuel

Photo by Natalie Manuel/Animus Photography

Rights of nature laws can help communities seeking self-governance, but they are also much more than that. Environmental lawyer Cormac Cullinan believes that they can be a vessel for bringing the wisdom of indigenous people into the courts of modern nations.

After the compromises and failures of the U.N.’s climate change negotiations in Copenhagen in 2009, the Bolivian government of Evo Morales convened an alternative meeting in Cochabamba. Delegates at the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth spent three days debating and revising a draft and signed the final version of the People’s Agreement on April 22, 2010.

Cullinan, who helped write the original text of the Agreement, explains that indigenous people tend to see human beings as a dependent part of a larger web of life and have cultural ways of making sure that people respect the ecosystem. Modern law, however, allows that web to be damaged because it recognizes only the rights of humans and treats nature as property.

The People’s Agreement attempts to change that model by translating indigenous doctrines into a legal language that the international community will adopt. “It provides a mechanism for balancing human interests against the interests of earth,” Cullinan says, “because if humans are the only ones with rights, the balance is tipped too far in the favor of the humans.”

Cullinan hopes that activists for social justice, environmental protection, indigenous people, and animal rights will unite around the People’s Agreement. “The one thing that we all have in common is the Earth,” he says, “and what we need to do is play by the rules of the Earth.”

Nonhuman Persons

One month after the World People’s Conference took place in Bolivia, a group of scientists and philosophers gathered in Helsinki, Finland, to make a similar argument in a different context. The group included many of the world’s foremost experts on the psychology and behavior of cetaceans, the order of animals that includes whales, dolphins, and porpoises. The convention ended with a Declaration of Rights for Cetaceans, 10 simple statements that recognize each individual animal’s right to life, habitat, and freedom.

New research in cognitive science suggests that cetaceans are “nonhuman persons” who deserve rights similar to those enjoyed by humans, says Lori Marino, one of the drafters of the Declaration and a senior lecturer in neuroscience and biology at Emory University. She says this was part of the reason why the scientists chose to use the language of rights in their declaration, as opposed to the traditional language of conservation.

Dr. Marino suggests that when scientists and philosophers wrestle with the question of what it is about ourselves that makes us human beings with rights, they find that “it has to do with sentience, self-awareness, and autonomy.” You don’t have to be a Homo sapiens to have those traits. Whales and dolphins have been shown to possess them, along with a few other animals such as great apes and elephants.

“These are beings that are aware of themselves, think about their thoughts, and think about their lives,” Marino says, and therefore, each one deserves rights. That approach is different from the one taken by traditional conservation biology, which aims to keep populations stable but doesn’t consider the rights of individual animals.

New Rights in Balance

Advocates for the rights of cetaceans and apes share general principles and goals with the supporters of the Cochabamba Agreement, but differences do come up.

Cormac Cullinan:
What if Orangutans Had
Their Day in Court?

Environmentalists say nature should have legally recognized rights. But what does that really mean?

“Just protecting the ecosystem is not enough,” Dr. Marino says, pointing to her group’s support for cetaceans in captivity who are no longer part of any ecosystem.

Meanwhile, some advocates of rights for ecosystems take issue with the idea of nonhuman personhood for only those animals whose intelligence resembles our own.

“Are algae sentient or not?” Cormac Cullinan asks. “All of these things have a degree of sentience, but it’s in a different form.” He says he’d prefer to focus on the health of the whole system.

Yet each of these activists says that their differences are outweighed by the goals and interests they share. Margil says she welcomes the work of advocates like Dr. Marino because “it’s all moving forward to an expansion of rights beyond the human.”

If that expansion is widely adopted into law, it will demand difficult sacrifices from ordinary people as well as from corporations. But the first few victories for the rights of nature suggest that the idea can empower communities, put a check on the rights of corporations, and create a more ethical society.

With climate change and resource shortages looming, looking after the rights of nature offers a way to protect ecosystems and the animals that live in them—including humans.

James Trimarco wrote this article for Can Animals Save Us?, the Spring 2011 issue of YES! Magazine. James is a writer and activist based in New York City and a consulting editor for YES!

Madeline Ostrander contributed reporting for this story. Madeline is senior editor at YES!




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