Our Burning Planet


Humanity’s relationship with nature needs to be adjusted for rights of natural world to be recognised

Humanity’s relationship with nature needs to be adjusted for rights of natural world to be recognised
From left: Our Burning Planet investigative journalist Don Pinnock | Director of Animal Law Reform South Africa, Amy P. Wilson | Director of the Wild Law Institute, Cormac Cullinan. (Photos: Supplied)

Recognising nature’s rights would require humanity to relook at its relationship with nature, and address that first before getting to the question of whether nature’s rights should be recognised. 

Human beings being the only species with absolute rights is a natural system imbalance that needs to be addressed and corrected, lawyers and experts said during Daily Maverick’s “Should nature have rights?” webinar on Wednesday evening. 

The webinar was hosted by Our Burning Plant’s investigative journalist Don Pinnock, with guests Cormac Cullinan, founder and director of the Wild Law Institute, and Amy P Wilson, co-founder and director of Animal Law Reform South Africa. 

Wilson kicked off the webinar by highlighting that the concept of dominion — the idea that humanity is superior to all other species — is a very hierarchical way of thinking and is at the core of why nature is afforded few or no rights in our country and across most parts of the world. 

“We’ve been brought up to believe that human beings are separate from nature, but of course, we’re embedded in it…we’re simply saying that by recognising human rights but not recognising the rights of everything, we’ve exacerbated this imbalance and we need to rectify it simply to recognise the reality that we live in this community of life,” Cullinan said. 

Cullinan and Wilson used the example of countries such as Bolivia and Ecuador, which had seen indigenous communities pushing for the respective South American nations to recognise environmental rights. The panellists added that such drives by communities were a clear indication of a greater need for harmony between humanity and the natural world — something we should be aiming for in South Africa. 

Wilson said, however, that in order for South Africa to reach such a position where the legal rights of nature are recognised, the country would need to start by assessing the existing categorisation of animals and nature as “property”. 

“We do also have animal cruelty laws but it’s apparent that those aren’t doing what they should be doing especially in that they allow for mass-scale abuse, particularly by corporations, through things like factory farming, commercialised fishing. 

“So obviously the paradigm for animals is not working. So, similar to nature, categorising them as property is problematic. And we need to find a balance between protecting people’s rights and property, and protecting animals…it’s more about giving them a voice and a seat at the table,” Wilson said. 

The categorisation of nature and animals under property law is a reflection of our dysfunctional relationship with nature and therefore decision-making at a legal level should be reevaluated, said Cullinan. Pinnock questioned how we can challenge the belief that nature exists purely for the benefit of human beings, and how we should reevaluate the perception of the exploitation of nature as a free resource, particularly by large corporations. 

“Instead of realising nature as property, we can then say what indigenous people have always said; if we want to live harmoniously, want to coexist harmoniously with nature, we have to maintain respectful relationships with other beings,” Cullinan said. 

Cullinan added, “The world is such a beautiful place if you regard it as consisting of beings, not objects. When you walk into a forest and you see a tree and you encounter it and think, ‘who are you? And who is this forest? What is this community?’”

Regarding nature in monetary terms has been a way for environmentalists to convey the importance of nature across the globe. However, Cullinan said that the intrinsic value of biodiversity — and by definition, life — is immense; therefore humans cannot put a price on the sanctity of nature.

Getting humanity to understand and acknowledge the intrinsic value of biodiversity is vital and communicating this requires innovation, said Cullinan, adding, “They say necessity is the mother of invention, well this is the mother of necessity”.

One of the ways in which both the panellists have started to tackle the social and legal standing of nature in society is through the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature (Garn) Africa Hub, a network of organisations and individuals that are championing the recognition of the rights of nature. 

The vision and mission of the organisation includes, among others;

  • An Africa where the interrelation of all species is honored and the rights of nature recognised;
  • Providing African perspectives and voices to the global rights nature movement;
  • Encourage and support African specific initiatives on the rights of nature in particular contexts; and
  • Adopting and implementing cultural systems that recognise and reinforces the rights of nature across Africa.

Pinnock concluded the webinar saying; “If we don’t work beside nature, we’re going to lose the planet to humans” and continued, “I’ve always considered law to be very central to change..it is the story that we humans tell ourselves about the way we want to live.” DM/OBP

To read all about Daily Maverick’s recent The Gathering: Earth Edition, click here.

Absa OBP

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