22nd October, 2016, Banco Court, Brisbane
The Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature is described as ‘a worldwide movement’ seeking to create ‘human communities that respect and defend the rights of nature.’ A founding member of this alliance is the AELA or Australian Earth Laws Alliance. Both organisations have held Rights of Nature (RON) tribunals, the most recent of which took place in the smart, modern surroundings of the Banco courtroom in Brisbane’s civil law precinct. Some 150 people were in attendance for this serious, yet inspiring and well-organised event. The day opened with a dance and welcome to Yuggera country by the Nunakal Yuggera Dancers. After brief opening remarks by the forum chair, Dr Michelle Maloney, the first of four sessions got under way. The program was as follows:
- Session 1: Mardoowara / Fitzroy River (Western Australia) VS Federal and State Governments;
- Session 2: Forests of Australia VS Federal and State Governments;
- Session 3: Great Artesian Basin VS Federal and State Governments and the Unconventional Gas Industry; and
- Session 4: Great Barrier Reef and Atmospheric Commons VS Federal and State Governments and Fossil Fuel Industries.
The format consisted of opening statements by representatives of each natural constituency. These were followed by questions / comments from the panel, and expert testimony from a variety of people with close knowledge of each area. Foremost among these were people of the land whose laws and practices to protect and sustain it go back thousands of years. Supporting them were other workers in those areas, including scientists and legal representatives. Each case concluded with a summing up phase during which details of specific actions, policies and recommended changes to laws and regulations were put forward. This deliberately formal structure proved much more effective than the usual lecture or panel since it brought into play a whole series of overlapping accounts, each representing a different aspect of the area and the issues it faces.
Some of the key points that emerged are as follows.
- Instead of using the broad-brush term ‘environment’ which is arguably too static, we could usefully refer to our ‘life-support system.’
- Terms like ‘Gaia’, ‘Mother Earth,’ ‘nature spirits’ may be too amorphous to have sufficient impact. We could perhaps ascribe to certain natural features the status of ‘a living person.’ This would help us to recognise the living, systemic qualities of, for example, the Great Artesian Basin, the Great Barrier Reef and what remains of Australia’s ancient forests. There’s an ironic precedent here in that companies were provided with this very status by a US court many years ago, with predictably disastrous results. Yet, if it’s good for companies…
- In the Bunya Mountains near Brisbane there’s an interpretive sign that explains how clearing the forest replaces biotic volume with mere area. During the second session a similar point was made – the older forests are far richer in terms of species requirements, services, niches for life, carbon uptake, resistance to fire and so on. Current embedded policies, however, are to progressively replace old forests with new ones that are essentially monocultures set out in rows (for easier harvesting). There’s thus a double loss of volume and rich diversity that city dwellers are unlikely to appreciate.
- For native peoples their law is the only law that matters because it is based on caring for, and protection of, the land. Post-colonial laws have proven inadequate. They represent special interests and deal mainly with how the land and its resources are to be harvested, dug up or otherwise exploited.
- Even though laws, regulations and legally binding agreements exist, they are routinely ignored by federal and state governments. (Hence the need for such forums.) In the case of forests, for example, existing laws provide triggers and referral options that are devolved to the states. But they are seldom applied or enforced because the latter have unresolved conflicts of interest between development and protection. De facto exemptions that circumvent attempts to protect natural features are also regularly provided to large-scale, commercial operators. This is another legal failing that can, in principle, be corrected.
- The overall lack of interest in such matters by the Federal government is demonstrated by the fact that the Forestry Act currently in use dates back to 1959.
Toward the end of the third session one of the panel members identified what is possibly the central issue underlying much of the detail. The point was made that the multiple failures of law and administration noted throughout were ‘not accidental.’ They were and are direct consequences of a system that’s primarily evolved to serve the rich and powerful. The worldview, values and practices of the latter could not be more different to that of native peoples.
Post-colonial law is a law for the rich as defined by Western Colonial interests. It is founded on Judeo-Christian culture that embodies an injunction to ‘subdue’ the Earth and its creatures for human use. We now know that the utilitarian principles that emerged from this culture and permeate its worldview are utterly unsuitable for our present world, its natural features, the people who are alive today and their descendants. It follows that the laws, rules and practices of the world’s native peoples should be respected and given new legal standing. A combination of science, rights of nature law reform and the leadership of native peoples are needed to make this happen. In order for these changes to take place the explicit and sustained support of the wider general public is required.
Further Reading and Information
A Tribunal for Earth: Why it Matters by Cormac Cullinan (excerpt)
Imagine how different the world would be if courts decided on the legitimacy – or otherwise – of human conduct on the basis of whether or it was in the best interests of the whole community of life. Imagine if there were an international tribunal that concerned itself with the fundamental rights of all beings, including humans, and decided matters on the basis of what was best for the Earth community as a whole, regardless of politics; an Earth Tribunal of respected individuals that drew on the wisdom of humanity as whole, respected the laws of Nature and was not beholden to governments or corporations. The establishment of the International Tribunal for the Rights of Nature is intended to give effect to this dream.
This and many other items can be found on the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature Website: http://therightsofnature.org Also see the Australian Earth Laws Alliance: http://www.earthlaws.org.au