9 min read

The English Rights of Nature Landscape

Alex May and Paul Powlesland survey the current initiatives and Rights of Nature movement in England.
Map of the UK with pins listing various initiatives
Graphic by Dr Neil W. Williams, Associate Professor in Philosophy at at University of Roehamptom and member of the INSRoN

History and Revitalisation

The Rights of Nature (RoN) movement in the UK has been newly revitalised over recent years. There was an early flurry of activity around 2005-2010, clustered around the UK Environmental Law Association (UKELA), which included some conferences, an excellent research report analysing the extent to which Wild Law already existed around the world, and annual Wild Law weekends (which continue!). In the middle of the last decade was another burst, lasting a few years, which included a couple of research conferences and the first local initiative around the Frome River (more below). Aside from this, while there have been individuals and small organisations in the UK working on RoN, these have been more disparate and usually in relation to projects abroad.

Hopefully this third revitalisation will be the strongest, and indications so far are positive. Over the last few years, the number of people working on RoN has grown and more connections have been established. A workshop in February 2023 in London brought experts together – though only those already known to organisers – and a UK Rights of Nature Network was subsequently formed to try and bring these disparate connections together, with many more joining the network since. So far, this has involved a WhatsApp chat with 25 members, regular video calls, an in-person event planned for the summer and hopefully a public online presence soon. Since early 2023, there have been a handful of Rights of Nature events organised by various groups who are mostly part of this network (though some also outside it) to bring experts and campaigners together. These included events at SOAS (including an IUCN Rights of Nature consultation), a gathering of campaigners for the first RoN Initiative Network meeting in June 2023 (organised by INSRoN), and an event held by the River Ouse campaigners. Beyond these gatherings there were also many public talks and presentations!

Attendees of the RoN Initiative Network in June 2023
Attendees at Love Our Ouse's Rights of Rivers summit in November 2023

As well as unaffiliated individuals, the organisations working specifically on RoN in the UK include the Anima Mundi Law Initiative, Lawyers for Nature, Nature’s Rights, the Interdisciplinary Network on the Study of the Rights of Nature, the Environmental Law Foundation, the UKELA Wild Law group and King’s Legal Clinic (who recently published an excellent Rights of Nature toolkit). 

Editor’s note – the aim of this article is to give an overview on campaigning and legal or social change, and as such academics or other individuals working on Rights of Nature decision are not being listed.

Political Context

The political context is almost certainly part of why RoN ideas have not flourished (yet) in the UK as they have in some other countries. Environmental issues were relatively absent from mainstream political discourse until around 2017, when campaigning by Extinction Rebellion, Youth Strike [known internationally as Fridays for Future movement] and a Green New Deal campaign forced these issues into the mainstream. However, after the victory of the Conservative party in the 2019 election, there has not been significant action on environmental issues even with hosting the 2021 Climate Change COP.

Ecological concerns remain a significant issue for the public and in local elections, and there is still lots of protesting, direct actions and grassroots campaigning. Campaigns aimed at Westminster have had to focus primarily on opposing post-Brexit regression in environmental protections. The highest profile issue has been rivers, as sewage discharge has increased, England’s rivers are among the most polluted in Europe and the Rivers Trust report that no single stretch of water in England and Northern Ireland was in good overall health. This is reflected in current UK RoN initiatives, which all of focus on river heath. 

While it is generally accepted that Keir Starmer’s Labour Party are set to win the next election, the level of his commitment and ambition in relation to tackling ecological crises – let alone taking a visionary approach such as RoN – are uncertain.

Rights of Nature Landscape

While large environmental NGOs in the UK are yet to take up the idea of RoN significantly, most are aware of the idea. With a couple of exceptions, almost all initiatives and campaigns have been at the local level, and a number of these are budding around the country. There have been, perhaps, missed opportunities that protection campaigns in recent years have not taken up the idea of RoN. For example, it has not been mentioned by Extinction Rebellion and related groups, nor campaigns to protect ancient woodland from destruction (such as the Stop HS2 campaign). Similarly, the idea is yet to see significant uptake in relation to nature reserves.

The biggest exception is that a Rights of Nature Act is part of the Green Party policy. Members of the Party worked to get RoN accepted as party policy in 2021, and drafting work on the Bill is being led by Nature’s Rights. Aside from developing a national legislative framework, it may also be the case that one particular place, habitat, ecosystem or body of water decides to embark on a campaign for legislative protection, in the style of the Mar Menor law in Spain. 

Text saying a Rights of Nature Act motion has passed, with a conference background
The social media graphic the Green Party posted from their conference (source)

Either type of campaign would face a significant institutional battle, needing either to be adopted by a majority government or needing a sizeable cross-party coalition in parliament to become law. Many other jurisdictions have more directly democratic avenues for legislative initiatives – some form of 'popular initiative' whereby if enough people sign in support of a proposal, it gets considered either by the legislative body or by a referendum. This is the avenue through which Mar Menor law in Spain was successful, and there are other RoN initiatives in Europe attempting the popular initiative route. So, for legislative Rights of Nature in the UK, a huge public campaign would be needed to leverage the ruling party or (depending on parliamentary arithmetic) create a cross-party coalition. This would certainly be an uphill battle – though RoN is exactly the type of idea that can inspire and mobilise and receive popular support.

Local Initiatives

Where Rights of Nature has taken root is in grassroots initiatives, where communities who want to protect local environments have been inspired by the idea. So far, these have generally been isolated pockets, though bonds are developing nationally. 

Map of the UK with pins listing various initiatives
Graphic by Dr Neil W. Williams, Associate Professor in Philosophy at at University of Roehamptom and member of the INSRoN

The first such attempt was in 2018 for the River Frome. In the UK legal system, unlike in many other jurisdictions, local authorities have only limited powers to make byelaws, and these are subject to approval by the national government. Despite having local support and being passed by the council, the Frome byelaw was rejected by national government on the basis that environmental law already covers rivers, ignoring the substance of whether this provided adequate protection. Even with a supportive government, however, byelaws would easily not be able to go against national legislation, and implementation of Rights of Nature in this manner would be difficult.

Initiatives seeking to work with or through local authorities have therefore generally looked to develop an approach within the council’s competency, usually focused more on declarations and internal plans. That said, it does remain open for another attempt at a byelaw either for campaigning reasons or to see if a government is more amenable and what might be achieved.

Across the Irish sea, Derry City and Strabane District Council, Fermanagh and Omagh District Council and Donegal County Council each passed motions in 2021 to set out pathways for the councils to explore with civil society and local communities what RoN might mean in practice, and how the concept could be expressed across community and corporate plans, development objectives, and other strategic frameworks (more detail here). This comes off the back of many years of work, such as by the Environmental Justice Network Ireland (EJNI).

A similar approach is being taken here in relation to the River Ouse, with Lewes Council passing a motion which commits to exploring a Rights of Rivers approach and produce a Declaration of the Rights of the River Ouse which the Council might endorse (more on the work here). This signals an intention and begins a process, but only after the follow-up work will there be either policy or legal effects.

In light of the legal and political limitations, many RoN activists have instead gone for alternative, direct approaches beyond existing state infrastructure – the idea is to act as if these rights exist, even if they aren't legally recognised. This often includes a Declaration of Rights of the River, which have no legal effect but can have powerful political, cultural and spiritual effects, and some local nature protectors have adopted the concept of guardianship for specific parts of nature such as trees, rivers and woodlands. Working within the existing legal and economic framework, what this means in practice varies, but can include direct practical action (such as monitoring water quality or removing rubbish from a river), legal challenges using existing laws, and activism against individuals or companies that are harming that part of nature. Such ‘Rights of Nature in action’ approaches are beginning to be taken by many ‘Friends of’ groups in the UK, notable examples being on the River Roding, the River Dart, the River Don, the River Deben, the River Cam and the River Wye. More broadly, recent community charters across the country, such as the Ryedale Community Charter and the St Ives Community Charter, while not focused on Rights of Nature have included commitments to recognising the equal rights of the environment and wildlife, and the need for those rights to be respected and represented.

People declaring the Rights of the River Cam in 2021 (from here)
A clean-up day on the River Roding

Wider Social Change

Beyond specific initiatives, we see the idea of Rights of Nature growing in the public consciousness. Media coverage of Rights of Nature has grown, and in the last year the idea has featured on multiple on BBC Radio shows and covered by the Guardian (among other media outlets). A forthcoming book on Rights of Rivers by bestselling nature author Robert MacFarlane will no doubt add to the awareness.

In the Republic of Ireland, Rights of Nature has also entered national political discourse. A Citizens' Assembly convened in 2022 to consider acting on Biodiversity Loss included a recommendation for Rights of Nature to be added to the constitution (full report here). This would have huge significance, being both the first English-language and European country to introduce a strong Rights of Nature approach. The recommendation has been acknowledged and discussed in the relevant Parliamentary Committee and discussed in a Parliamentary debate. The next stage is for the government to establish an expert group to develop the detail, which should result in a proposal to be taken to a referendum. This would be sure to strengthen the argument that Rights of Nature is a realistic legal approach.

Rights of Nature thinking has also entered the world of business and organisational thinking. The Nature-Positive Corporate Governance piloted by Lawyers for Nature has worked with purpose-driven companies who, within the flexibility of English company law, wish to introduce representation of Rights of Nature in decision-making. In 2022, in what we believe to be a world first, the beauty products company Faith In Nature appointed a Director to represent nature to its Board of Directors, and in November 2023 interior design company House of Hackney implemented a similar approach. This has changed the discussion about the relationship between nature and business, and Lawyers For Nature are looking to further this approach with third sector organisations and public bodies, such as charities, NGOs and public bodies, both in the UK and abroad. Similarly, Moral Imaginations have been facilitating organisational imagination processes which include representing the more-than-human world in decision-making, including workshops with local authorities and a government department.

It seems to us that momentum is growing, with more awareness of and support for Rights of Nature as a necessary response to the current destructive pathway we are on, and hopefully, meaningful legal change is not too far away.

With thanks to Phoebe Tickell, Mumta Ito and Neil W. Williams for their inputs.

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