Wild Law group discusses rights of nature

A group of socially conscious lawyers, activists, students, and others who believe in Earth justice, came together in September to discuss how we can reconnect with nature and help change the legal system so that our laws work for the Earth, not against it

The annual workshop run by Wild Law UK, was held at the Sustainability Centre in the beautiful South Downs and included 40 participants.

This was not a typical law conference and the Sustainability Centre’s 55-acre site – in particular the simple woodland classroom – was the perfect setting for these discussions.

We heard from fascinating speakers including Professor Jane Holder of UCL who spoke about the special role that the Universities could play in equipping students to become genuine Earth citizens.

Jane also challenged the group to develop a wild law legal course. The idea is exciting – for a start a wild law course would involve lots of outdoor study. ‘Wild Lawyers’ need to learn the ‘lore of the land’, which can’t be ascertained from textbooks; it needs to be experienced.

Ben Law, renowned woodman and a local to the area, also reminded us of how important having a sense of “I know this place, I belong here” is.

Professor Ted Benton led a lively discussion on the role of rights. Wild Law is a rights-based approach to the protection of nature, which draws inspiration from Thomas Berry’s illuminating work on Earth Jurisprudence – whereby the Earth is recognised as the primary source of law, setting human law in wider context.

Nnimmo Bassey, head of Friends of the Earth International continued the theme by speaking movingly about rights of nature and the corporate (un)accountability of oil companies. Nnimmo is one of the ‘defenders of nature’ in a legal case against BP following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The case was filed under the constitution of Ecuador, which grants rights to nature. The case progresses although there is no substantive update.

Storytelling, music and poetry made the weekend so special. One of the many highlights was listening to Nnimmo read from his latest poetry collection, I Will Not Dance to Your Beat. “We need to leave the oil in the soil, the coal in the hole and the tar sands in the lands,” he said.

Many of the discussions in the open space focussed on the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth and its significance for us. The declaration states that the Earth is a living being and that it has the right to life and to exist. It sounds so simple and obvious, yet our legal system does not recognise the rights of nature.

In fact, our legal system treats nature as ‘property’, and generally facilitates its destruction. This has led to a dangerous imbalance in the relationship between humans and the Earth. Recognising the rights of nature goes some way to restoring some much needed balance.

Wild Law UK also launched its own letter writing campaign at the workshop, to link up with a global campaign to have the declaration adopted next June at the Earth Summit in Rio. If ratified at the UN, the declaration would be a big first step towards making peace with nature.