It was an honour to share the stage with leading international researchers and activists who have been advocating for more effective legal protection of the environment for decades, including Cormac Cullinan, Klaus Bosselmann, Michelle Maloney, Professor Mary Graham, Justice Brian Preston, and Jacinta Ruru.
The AELA conferences are always a joy to attend, particularly since they have been hosted at the Griffith University Eco-centre on the beautiful Nathan campus. There is a great mix of academics (both Australian and international), as well as community groups, and, increasingly, First Nations and Indigenous peoples.
Understanding and improving the legal status of nature requires a deeper understanding of First Nations law and ethics, which emphasise an ongoing relationship with land and water. It was a particular privilege to hear Professor Graham's discourse on the changing ethic of our collective relationship to country, as we move from a survivalist ethos (which often places us into conflict and competition with each other, and nature) into a relational ethos that emphasises our relationship with nature, and our obligations to nature.
I presented my research findings on the unexpected challenge that can arise when nature's rights are recognised in a Western legal framework (with its emphasis on individuality), and the paradox which can result: increasing nature's legal rights can weaken the willingness of communities to protect nature.
|The paradox of legal rights: as legal protection goes up, this can lead to increasing complacency and an abdication of our responsibilities to look after the environment|
|Understanding the paradox of legal rights for nature requires an understanding of how the environment is constructed in law|
|Tensions between the different constructions of the environment in law can lead to significant shifts in the broader socio-ecological concept|
We can mitigate this paradox by:
(1) centering First Nations values and perspectives, as happened for the Whanganui River;
(2) connecting people and place, as happened for the Rio Atrato in Colombia; and
(3) explicitly engaging in (and continuing) the difficult questions of why the environment needs protection, as well as how it can best be achieved, as happened in the Yarra River, Australia.
We can also mitigate the paradox by ensuring that when rivers are expected to compete for their own outcomes, and look after themselves, that they have adequate institutional support to give those legal rights force and effect, including funding, organisational identity, and governance arrangements.