It’s certainly unusual to see the words ‘Rights of Nature’ displayed in large type in the window of a building or on posters in the UK but if you wander around the streets in Nottingham over the next few weeks you’re likely to notice them promoting a new exhibition, ‘Rights of Nature – Art and Ecology in the Americas’, at Nottingham Contemporary.
As those familiar with Wild Law will know, in his call for an ‘Earth Jurisprudence’, the geologian and cultural historian, Thomas Berry was influenced by the Earth-centred practices of indigenous people around the world. It is many of these indigenous people who are now bearing the brunt of what Naomi Klein has recently referred to as “an economic model that is at war with life on Earth”. The exhibition draws together the work of artists highlighting the impacts of our current ‘resource’ attitude to Nature and peoples’ responses to this. Here art is contributing to the reassessment of our relationship with other living species.
To launch the exhibition, Nottingham Contemporary held a ‘Rights of Nature Conference’ on 24th January to explore whether rights of Nature is a legal ideal or a practical reality. Wild Law UK was invited to speak about the evolution of Wild Law in the UK and emerging initiatives, joined by Cormac Cullinan on the need for Wild Law as vital for survival and already developing through legal precedents and the International Rights of Nature Tribunal. The Gaia Foundation shared experiences of indigenous communities practicing Earth Jurisprudence/Earth Law, and several artists and activists introduced their work which features in the exhibition.
While the focus was primarily on the Americas and the devastation being caused there, other regions such as the UK and Africa are also facing similar experiences. The latest State of Nature report in 2014 revealed that, despite various environmental legal protections, 60% of species studied in the UK have declined over the previous 50 years, with 31% declining strongly. While there are many possible causes for this, the fact that we tend to see Nature in terms of ‘resources’ to be used, something apart from us, rather than a community of which we are a part, plays a significant role.
The conference heard examples of how indigenous peoples are taking action to protect ecosystems, their homes and way of life. Ursula Biemann spoke of the Sarayaku people, in the Ecuadorian Amazon and their selva viviente or ‘living forest’ which they have sought to protect from oil and mining through the courts. ‘Forest Law’ documents their journey. Fernando Palma Rodriguez highlighted that in his Mexican Nahuatl language there is not a word for ‘rubbish’ - a clear demonstration of how far removed from natural processes our ‘modern’ life in industrialised countries has become. In a very moving presentation, Eriel Deranger of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation portrayed the effects that mining of tar sands is having on the land of her people by the removal of what is termed ‘overburden’ but is actually ancient boreal forest. Eriel explained that as her people are so closely connected to the land, by erasing it in this way, companies are effectively erasing the people too.
The Gaia Foundation explained how communities are protecting ecosystems from the growing threats of mining and industrial development by reviving their traditional knowledge, practices and customary governance systems based on the laws of the Earth, through a process known as Community Ecological Governance. Based on this process, communities such as in Colombia and in Africa have been using ‘industrial’ law on their own terms to secure recognition of their ancestral lands and territories and their Earth-based customary laws.
The experiences of these communities demonstrate that Earth Jurisprudence is not only a legal philosophy but is, and needs to be, a fundamental way of life. As part of a wider Earth community, humans have a responsibility to live in harmony with other beings and to protect the health and integrity of Earth, upon which we depend, for present and future generations of all species. It’s inspiring to see a growing, global social movement advocating for and practicing Earth Jurisprudence, such as the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature.
Our ‘Awaken the Dreamer Symposium’ in October 2014 encouraged a commitment to bring forth an environmentally sustainable, spiritually fulfilling presence on the planet. This doesn’t have to be complicated. Thomas Berry’s own guiding principle, influenced by a meadow he had seen as a boy, offers a universal guide: “Whatever preserves and enhances the meadow in the natural cycles of its transformation is good. Whatever opposes or negates it is not good. My life orientation is that simple”.
Perhaps then Rights of Nature would be more familiar around the UK.
A podcast of the Conference can be viewed here. Rights of Nature – Art and Ecology in the Americas runs from 24th January to 15th March 2015.