What is a Rights of Wetlands approach?

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The drive for economic growth, based on unbridled consumerism, continues to dominate wetland use and associated biodiversity loss, with existing strategies for wetland conservation failing. Up to 87% of global wetlands have been lost, contributing to an average decline of 84% in freshwater species populations and 36% decline in coastal/marine species populations since 1970. Biodiversity loss, ecosystem degradation and climate destabilisation constitute connected global emergencies that worsen poverty, and now require transformative approaches, including ethical/legal paradigm shifts.

Rights of Nature is gaining increased support as a solution, an approach that is consistent with many Indigenous Peoples’ and local communities’ views and increasingly championed by courts, legislatures and international institutions. This framework supports behavioural change in how we interact with Nature/biodiversity, supporting improved management. The shift is radical: from nature being considered a property and commodity, to Nature becoming a rights-bearing entity, resulting in a significant advance in protecting and conserving biodiversity.

In most legal frameworks, an environmental lawsuit can be filed only if human injury or loss is proven in connection to degradation of the person’s environment (locus standi). Within a ‘Rights of Nature’ framework, one can sue on an ecosystem’s behalf, without connection to direct personal injury. Rights of Nature has also advanced to support a position where harm is averted rather than holding those to account post injury (precautionary principle).

Although some national governments have legislated for Rights of Nature approaches (e.g. 2008 Ecuadorian Constitution, 2010 Law of Mother Earth in Bolivia, 2018 Colombia Supreme Court recognizing the right of the Amazon to exist), in practice, these have been undermined by other legal mechanisms still promoting a commodified, proprietary approach to nature (e.g. ‘Payments for Ecosystem Services’ which, when applied, still approach wetland management and governance in piecemeal ways, such as a focus on floodwater attenuation, creating perverse financial incentives that could undermine other wetland functions). A ‘Rights of Nature’ approach promotes a holistic strategy that protects the integral functioning of a wetland, including safeguards for its constituent species and beneficial human activities that support poverty alleviation.

In our Rights of Wetlands project, funded by the Darwin Initiative of the UK’s Biodiversity Challenge Funds, co-led with Wetlands International Kenya and in collaboration with partners in Bolivia, Ecuador, Guyana, Kenya and Sri Lanka, we aim to facilitate the operationalisation of the Rights of Wetlands approach in different country contexts, embedding the right of a wetland to function and exist through community activism and management, ethical framing, policy and legal instruments and governance frameworks, and demonstrating how a more holistic and morally driven relationship with wetlands can deliver successful biodiversity conservation and poverty alleviation.

Watch this space for updates!