by Bharat Dogra, Anupam Bhandari & Tristan Partridge
Perhaps the most widespread and persistent cause of human distress has been relationships based on dominance, whether across differences in class, gender, caste, race, or other imposed social categories. These tendencies are clear and undeniable, yet very difficult to change at a fundamental or societal level – as reflected in the ongoing struggles of countless global movements pushing for such changes and to fight for social justice. Often more hidden from view is how no less distress has been caused by relationships between humanity and Nature that are also largely based on dominance, a tendency that has intensified through the application and expansion of modern scientific and technological capabilities.
While there are millions of life forms, human beings alone have shown the capacity to change and modify Nature across vast temporal and geographical scales and in irreversible ways. This capacity to create change is most visible in multiple forms of destruction. This destructive tendency is inherent in the perception of relationships between humanity and Nature as relationships of dominance and a lack of reciprocity, in which human beings seek to dominate, exploit, or even ‘conquer’ Nature. This is regularly seen in terms of achievement: the conquest of Nature has historically been seen in positive terms by those who benefit from this destruction; it is a worldview promoted by those who pursued (and who continue to pursue) acts of colonial and imperial violence. At root, this is a very human-centric worldview that denigrates and devalues Nature and the many interacting species that constitute Nature, caring not at all for the negative impacts of human power and activity: what matters is only the potential ‘benefit’ for humankind that can be derived from Nature (‘benefits’ that are always very unequally distributed and are questionable in other ways also).
Not only is this dominant worldview anthropocentric, it is also limited to a very short-term understanding and engagement with the world, neglecting to take into account the fact that, in the long term, such thinking creates further harm for humankind as well. Even while climate change together with other serious environmental problems now constitute a global crisis of survival – creating a pressing need to revive relationships of care with Nature – dominance and conquest are still the pervasive trends.
Let us look at attitudes towards a river. A river supports so many forms of life in its lap and contributes so much to people and communities living around its natural flow: it provides water to meet many human needs; recharges groundwater; and also helps to drain away excess rain water. At other times, the naturally flowing river can cause harm in the form of floods that might affect a few villages or even an entire region. The negative impacts of cyclical floods, however, can be limited when the river is free to follow its natural, unhindered flow. Such floods generally also leave behind fertile silt on farmlands. Though worsening, unpredictable floods as a result of climate change threaten millions of people, it is still possible to live in a sustainable way with rivers and to be blessed with their contributions for a very long time. This is helped by an attitude of reverence towards rivers, which is common in many communities. People in riverside communities often identify philosophically with the various moods of a river and take joy in its beauty which keeps changing, from morning to night, and over various seasons. Riverside community members typically appreciate the river and riverbanks as the habitat of many forms of life: even though they may be eating and selling some of the river’s fish, they are also careful to ensure that, overall, the various river-based and riverbank species are protected.
However, there can also be a very different attitude toward rivers, one which is based on exploiting them as much as possible, without regard for the destruction of rivers themselves and the life-forms they support. A river may be dammed densely, with most of its water diverted, its flow pushed into tunnels, ignoring the destruction of fish and other life-forms and all the biodiversity associated with the natural flow of a river. Such an attitude toward rivers underpins tendencies throughout modern industrialization and has created large-scale destruction.
The industrialization of agriculture also reflects the dominant view of ‘mastering’ (rather than working with and alongside) Nature. A few decades ago, communities across Uttarakhand state of India worked with their own ecological farming methods. These were virtually wiped out in several villages when farmers were compelled to abandon organic farming due to government initiatives that were aimed solely at maximizing production.
Initial, economic benefits (and continuing government pressure) saw many farmers permanently move away from organic agricultural methods. As a result, seed biodiversity was all but lost and soil vitality was reduced as farmers took up the cultivation of hybrid crops. While these shifts did not occur overnight, after 50-60 years of government (and corporate-sponsored) programs, the negative impacts on the longer-term prospects for agriculture have been revealed. Fighting against these trends, and seeking to conserve traditional crops and farming methods, a group of social activists in Henwalghati founded Beej Bachao Andolan (Save the Seeds Movement) in the 1990s. This movement took its message of organic farming based on traditional highly diverse seed varieties of diverse crops all over the region and then beyond. This also helped gradually to change official policy which now offers partial support for organic farming. On the whole, though, the official approach still continues to push agro-chemical intensive methods. When government policies are insufficient to protect those practices that work with Nature and which strengthen natural cycles, it becomes clear that activists, journalists, researchers, and society as a whole all play important roles in raising awareness of environmental rights.
Against the ongoing dominance and destruction of Nature – and in favor of the protection of environmental rights – one interesting concept that has been advanced relates to Rights of Nature. This has been articulated at an official level in multiple different global contexts. One of the first such moves, in 2008, came when Ecuador ratified a new national constitution containing a chapter specifically dealing with the Rights of Nature, referencing the Indigenous Kichwa concept of “Pacha Mama” (or Mother Nature/Pachamama): “Nature or Pachamama, where life is reproduced and exists, has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution” (Ch.7, Article 1). In Bolivia, the Constitution was rewritten in 2009. As in Ecuador, this was the result of decades of activism led by Indigenous and environmental groups. This paved the way for Bolivia’s “Law of the Rights of Mother Earth” in 2011, which declared Mother Earth to be “a collective subject of public interest” and enshrined the right of nature “to not be affected by mega-infrastructure and development projects that affect the balance of ecosystems and the local inhabitant communities.” These moves continue to influence and interact with social movements elsewhere.
In India, in 2022, the Madurai Bench of Madras High Court ruled that “Mother Nature is accorded the rights akin to fundamental rights, legal rights, constitutional rights for its survival, safety, sustenance and resurgence in order to maintain its status and also to promote its health and well-being. The State and Central governments are directed to protect ‘Mother Nature’ and take appropriate steps in this regard in all possible ways.” The ruling also specified that “If sustainable development destroys biodiversity and resources, it is not sustainable development as it is sustainable destruction.”
This articulation can also be seen in statements and pronouncements including a judicial verdict in Uttarakhand, more particularly in the context of rivers. Hence concepts like right of free flow for rivers have also been discussed in India, particularly in the context of the Ganga river. This has been taken up by some environmentalists but also by those who practice spiritual reverence for the river. In 2017 , the Uttarakhand High Court (UHC) ruled that “the Indian rivers Ganga and Yamuna, the Gangotri and Yamunotri glaciers, as well as other related natural elements are ‘legal persons’ with all corresponding rights, duties and liabilities of a living person. Subsequently, in 2018, the same high court ruled that the entire animal kingdom has rights equivalent to that of a living person.”
While the concept of Rights of Nature is very interesting and significant in its own way, Nature does not articulate its own rights, this has to be done ultimately by human beings (who may have very different perceptions of the purposes and methods of Nature protection). Even those engaged in the destruction of Nature can be found admiring its beauty and even speaking of how they contribute to it. Some of the biggest dam building activities are accompanied by creating tourism resorts near reservoir sites. As Nature and natural processes have already been modified to such a great extent by human intervention, the concept of Rights of Nature – if taken up now and applied without concern for historical processes of Nature destruction – may do little to actually undo those processes and to begin the necessary work of repairing Human-Nature relationships.
Hence, legal and judicial actions have to complemented by meaningful and effective social change, emphasizing how the ‘we’ of humanity understand, relate to, and interact with Nature. This means dismantling structures of domination and oppression, and supporting instead those practices that seek to live in cooperation and harmony with natural cycles and diverse ecosystems. Of course, this emphasis ultimately underpins the well-being of the planet and of humanity as a whole. It also fosters creativity and forms an important focus for education and learning. The agro-ecology approach is based on this commitment to vitality and diversity, while social agro-ecology emphasizes in addition the ecological and justice issues in the context of agriculture, food, and related issues.
Thus, the protection of Nature has to be pursued in combination with other objectives like the protection and nurturing of sustainable livelihoods as well as meeting the essential needs of everyone, particularly the world’s poorest people and communities. Some of these livelihoods may require limited tapping of forest produce and resources; in recent times, this may have even become somewhat unsustainable and exploitative. What if the Rights of Nature were interpreted in such a way that those in power demand such communities be displaced from forest areas? Clearly this would be unjust; the need is for making such changes that support livelihood practices becoming more sustainable without having to over-exploit nature in any way. These are goals that public policies can be refocused in order to meet more effectively, continuing to draw on the efforts of environmental, indigenous, and activist groups that have paved the way for Rights of Nature action around the world.
Approaches to these issues that are carefully and collectively planned, well-informed, and which continue to draw on the influence of diverse social movements will be the most successful. The goal remains a combination of mutually consistent objectives including Nature protection, justice and equality, peace, and social harmony – a combined approach that allows the essential tasks and agenda items to be mapped out more clearly and respectfully. A key aspect of this effort would to give up the attitude of dominance and conquest towards Nature, seeking instead to establish long-term relationships of understanding, learning, and cooperation.
Bharat Dogra is Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Planet in Peril, Man over Machine, A Day in 2071, Protecting Earth for Children and Earth Without Borders.
Dr Anupam Bhandari is a social activist and Professor in the Department of Mathematics, School of Engineering, University of Petroleum & Energy Studies (UPES) Energy Acres Building, Bidholi Dehradun.
Tristan Partridge is a social anthropologist and Research Fellow at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His research addresses indigenous rights, collective action, and environmental justice. His recent book is titled Energy and Environmental Justice: Movements, Solidarities, and Critical Connections.