CfP POLLEN 20 – The Rights of Nature: between radical environmentalism and hegemonic threat

Session organiser

Mihnea Tanasescu (, Vrije Universiteit Brussel

Paper proposals (abstract, 250 words max) should be sent to by October 13th, 2019.  

Session Abstract

The first theoretical formulation of the rights of nature is attributed to professor Christopher Stone, an American legal scholar that, as a tactic for capturing his students’ attention at the end of a lecture, asked whether it is conceivable that trees could have legal standing. This first intuition led, in 1972, to the publication of the now classic “Should Trees Have Standing?”. The argument that Stone developed, in brief, is that there are no a priori reasons, other than legal custom, to exclude non-human beings, even ‘inanimate’ ones, from having standing in a court of law (Stone 1972, 2010).

This first formulation of what later became a movement for rights of nature captures the basic idea that natural entities can, in principle, be granted standing in a court of law. However, this formulation logically leads to the idea of rights, because by conferring rights legal persons can be created that can sue in their own name and for their own benefit.

The rights of nature literature has since developed away from the idea of granting nature standing alone and towards the idea of granting nature positive rights as well. In this, Thomas Berry (1999), Alberto Acosta (2008a, 2008b, 2010), and Cormac Cullinan (2011) have been influential (also see Gudynas 2009ab, 2011ab). The principal positive rights that these authors argue for are the right to respect and restoration. These are derived from the supposed moral standing of nature and therefore signify a conflation of legal and moral personality in the scholarship of rights for nature (Tanasescu 2016).

With the writing of the 2008 Ecuadorian constitution (Asamblea Constituyente 2008), these theoretical debates entered the realm of practical political ecology. Since then, many other jurisdictions have followed suit, and we are now faced with a growing number of rights for nature: at the municipal level in the United States (Tanasescu 2016, Fitz‐Henry 2018), at the national level in Bolivia (Lalander 2014), at the constitutional level in Ecuador (Daly 2012, Tanasescu 2013), and at the regional level in India (O’Donnell 2017), Columbia (Caballero Flórez et al 2018) and New Zealand (Tanasescu 2016, Sanders 2017, O’Donnell and Talbot-Jones 2018, O’Donnell and Macpherson 2019). The practical application of the rights of nature so far has been aided by two factors: the activism of non-governmental organizations (key among which are the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, USA, the Pachamama Alliance and Accion Ecologica, Ecuador; see Rawson and Mansfield 2018) and the activism of organized indigenous populations. These different cases have been investigated relatively little, but interest is growing tremendously. Critical scholars are increasingly beginning to question the simple narrative that would equate rights of nature with emancipatory projects.

For example, Rawson and Mansfield (2018) argue that the rights of nature amount to a naturalization of rights, that is to say to the hegemonic extension of a particular political and legal ontology to subordinate groups, particularly indigenous nations. Tanasescu (2015) has argued that the indigenous are often used as little more than a marketing façade for the operations of particular environmental agendas. Transnational policy networks, conceptualizing ‘nature’ as a globe shared by all humanity, are at the same time identifying the rights of nature with indigenous, situated practices. An increasing number of authors are also pushing the established boundaries of rights of nature discourse into comparative political directions (for example Knauß 2018), into post-human international relations (for example Youatt 2017, 2018), while starting to explore the overlap of resource extractivism and rights for nature (for example Fitz‐Henry 2018, Valladares and Boelens 2019).

Despite these developments, many questions remain unanswered. This session wishes to investigate three particular issues raised by the proliferation of rights for nature and by their relatively short history. First, do we now have enough cases, and enough case studies, such that we can start mapping the diversity within the rights for nature movement? Can we, today, speak of a movement, or are the rights of nature strategically appropriated in widely different contexts? What does a provisional answer to this question say about the future practice of rights for nature? Second, and related to the first line of investigation, what is the relationship between indigeneity and rights for nature? This supposedly close alliance has for too long escaped sustained critical attention, a state of affairs that benefits neither theory nor practice. What are the conceptual imbroglios between an increasingly diverse rights of nature advocacy and an always already diverse indigeneity (not to mention the incredible diversity of ‘nature’)? Third, rights of nature have been strategically deployed in areas of resource conflicts, and particularly against resource extraction. Are nature’s rights an appropriate strategy to oppose extractivism, or can they work – despite good intentions – to reinforce extractive politics? This session invites submissions that address these questions, and/or their interrelations. 


Acosta, A., 2008a. Tienen Derechos los Animales? La Insignia,[online] Available at: <>

Acosta, A., 2008b. La Naturaleza como Sujeta de Derechos. [online] Available at: <>

Acosta, A., 2010. Policy Paper 9: El Buen Vivir en el Camino del Post-desarollo.Una Lectura desde la Constitución de Montecristi. Quito: Fundación Friedrich Ebert.

Acosta, A., 2011.  La Naturaleza con Derechos: Una Propuesta de Cambio Civilizatorio. [online] Available at: <>

Acosta, A. and Martinez, E., eds., 2011. La Naturaleza con Derechos. De la Filosofía a la Política. Quito: AbyaYala.

Asamblea Constituyente, 2008. Constitución de la República del Ecuador. [online] Available at: <>

Berry, T., 1999. The Great Work: Our Way Into the Future. New York: Crown Publishing.

Caballero Flórez, D. M., & Largo Leal, C. E. 2018. Análisis jurídico de los alcances de las decisiones judiciales que otorgan derechos a contextos ambientales en Colombia.

Cullinan, C., 2011. Wild Law: A Manifesto for Earth Justice. 2nd ed. Devon: Green Books.

Daly, E., 2012. The Ecuadorian Exemplar: The First Ever Vindications of Constitutional Rights of Nature. Review of European Community & International Environmental Law, 21, pp.63–66.

Fitz‐Henry, E. 2018. Challenging Corporate “Personhood”: Energy Companies and the “Rights” of Non‐Humans. PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review41(S1), 85-102.

Gudynas, E., 2009a. El Mandato Ecológico. Derechos de la Naturaleza y Poltícas Ambientales en la Nueva Constitución. Quito: AbyaYala.

Gudynas, E., 2009b. The Political Ecology of the Biocentric Turn in Ecuador’s New Constitution. Revista de Estudios Sociales, 32, pp.34-47.

Gudynas, E., 2011a. Desarollo, Derechos de la Naturaleza y Buen Vivir Despues de Montecristi. In: Weber, G., ed., Debates Sobre Cooperación y Modelos de Desarollo. Perspectivas desde la Sociedad Civil en el Ecuador. Quito: Centro de Investigaciones CIUDAD.

Gudynas, E., 2011b. Los Derechos de la Naturaleza en Serio. Respuestas y Aportes desde la Ecología Política. In: Acosta, A. and Martinez, E., eds., La Naturaleza con Derechos. De la Filosofía a la Política. Quito: AbyaYala.

Knauß, S. 2018. Conceptualizing human stewardship in the anthropocene: The rights of nature in Ecuador, New Zealand and India. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics31(6), 703-722.

Lalander, R. 2014. Rights of nature and the indigenous peoples in Bolivia and Ecuador: A straitjacket for progressive development politics?. Iberoamerican Journal of Development Studies3(2), 148-172.

O’Donnell, E. L. 2017. At the intersection of the sacred and the legal: rights for nature in Uttarakhand, India. Journal of Environmental Law30(1), 135-144.

O’Donnell, E. and Talbot-Jones, J., 2018. Creating legal rights for rivers: lessons from Australia, New Zealand, and India. Ecology and Society, 23(1).

O’Donnell, E., & Macpherson, E. 2019. Voice, power and legitimacy: the role of the legal person in river management in New Zealand, Chile and Australia. Australasian Journal of Water Resources23(1), 35-44.

Rawson, A., & Mansfield, B. 2018. Producing juridical knowledge: “Rights of Nature” or the naturalization of rights?. Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space1(1-2), 99-119.

Sanders, K. 2017. ‘Beyond Human Ownership’? Property, Power and Legal Personality for Nature in Aotearoa New Zealand. Journal of Environmental Law30(2), 207-234.

Stone, C.D., 1972. Should Trees Have Standing? Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects. Southern California Law Review, 45, 450.

Stone, C.D., 2010. Should Trees Have Standing? Law, Morality, and the Environment. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Tanasescu, M., 2013. The rights of nature in Ecuador: the making of an idea. International Journal of Environmental Studies, 70(6), pp.846-861.

Tanasescu, M. 2015. Nature advocacy and the indigenous symbol. Environmental Values24(1), 105-122.

Tanasescu, M., 2016. Environment, Political Representation and the Challenge of Rights: Speaking for Nature. Springer.

Valladares, C., & Boelens, R. 2019. Mining for Mother Earth. Governmentalities, sacred waters and nature’s rights in Ecuador. Geoforum100, 68-79.

Youatt, R., 2017. Personhood and the Rights of Nature: The New Subjects of Contemporary Earth Politics. International Political Sociology, 11(1), pp.39-54.

Youatt, R., 2018. Anthropocentrism and the Politics of the Living. Reflections on the Posthuman in International Relations, p.39.

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