In March 2022, SIGWATCH alerted its clients to a novel campaign led by Spanish activist groups Ecologistas en Accion, Amigos de la Tierra (FoE Spain), Sociedad Espanola de Agricultura Ecologica, and the UK-based Extinction Rebellion.
These groups aimed to grant Mar Menor, a significant saltwater lagoon in Murcia, south-east Spain, the status of a “juridical person.” At the time, we had predicted that the tactic was likely to garner public attention around increased eutrophication and marine biodiversity loss in Spain. The campaign turned out to be a success and Spain passed a law codifying the lagoon’s right “to exist as an ecosystem and to evolve naturally”, marking a landmark moment for the Rights of Nature movement in Europe.
But what does environmental personhood mean, and why should companies be on alert?
What is Environmental Personhood?
Environmental personhood is a legal concept that bestows natural entities, such as rivers, mountains, forests, or even specific ecosystems, with legal personhood enabling “nature” to be protected in a court of law. In practice, conceptions of environmental personhood vary by region in the specific status and rights accorded to entities.
Regardless, this legal transformation allows advocates and activists to take legal action on behalf of these natural entities, often in an attempt to combat environmental degradation and in the process, presents a new, disruptive business risk for industry.
Role of Indigenous Communities: Case Studies from Ecuador, Bolivia, and New Zealand
- Ecuador: In 2008, Ecuador became the first country to recognize the rights of nature in its constitution, largely due to Indigenous activism.
- Bolivia: Following Ecuador’s lead, Bolivia has made strides in recognizing the Rights of Mother Earth, protecting the rights of nature from ”mega-infrastructure and development projects” emphasizing the importance of coexistence rather than exploitation.
- New Zealand: Here, the Whanganui River was granted the same legal status as a human being in 2017, after a 170-year battle led by the Maori indigenous community.
Why Companies Should Be Aware: Increasing Legal Risks
The concept of environmental personhood is quickly evolving from a rare event of mere anecdotal significance into a proven legal strategy. As NGOs and Indigenous communities worldwide continue to win legal battles, the concept is beginning to infiltrate criminal law as well. For instance, the International Criminal Court is drafting legislation for the crime of ‘ecocide.’
Companies need to be vigilant about this trend because it potentially places them into a legally enforceable relationship of care toward nature. Failure to recognize this new paradigm could expose them to legal risks that may have serious implications on their operations, reputations, and financial health.
Ambiguous Outcomes: SIGWATCH’s Opinion
While some may argue that environmental personhood is a mere legal innovation without substantive weight, SIGWATCH believes this underestimates the concept’s transformative potential. It’s not just about nature gaining legal ‘personhood’; it’s about a fundamental shift in how society and, by extension, corporations view their relationship with the natural world. The issue teeters between ethical imperatives and legal obligations, the outcome of which remains an evolving tapestry of case law and public opinion.
The rise of environmental personhood signifies an essential shift in environmental activism, societal values, and potentially, legal accountability for corporations. For businesses, this is not merely a trend to monitor but an evolving reality that will likely necessitate changes in how they operate, manage risk, and engage with both activists and the broader public.
As experts in activism and corporate engagement, SIGWATCH advises companies to proactively study this emerging field, evaluate their potential exposure, and consider strategies for responsible environmental stewardship. Given the legal and societal currents, this isn’t just good corporate citizenship; it’s a strategic imperative.
Check out this article on the SIGWATCH page on City AM’s ESG hub here and find more related content!