Human rights and the environment – do trees have rights?

Establishing human rights

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948 as a reaction to the Second World War – a pledge to learn from the past and not to visit the horrors and atrocities of that time on future generations.

In 1950, shortly after the signing of the declaration, the population of the World passed 2.5 billion.

Although the Universal Declaration on Human Rights does not specifically mention the environment, it is implicit in many of its articles. Subsequent work by the UN has made link between human rights and the environment explicit. The Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in 1972 – also called the Stockholm Declaration – said that…

Man is both creature and moulder of his environment, which gives him physical sustenance and affords him the opportunity for intellectual, moral, social and spiritual growth.”

But it went on the caution that…

 “…a stage has been reached when…man has acquired the power to transform his environment in countless ways and on an unprecedented scale.”  

At the time of the Stockholm declaration the population of the Earth was about 3.7 billion people.

The 1992 Conference of Rio de Janeiro on Environment and Development reinforced the link between human rights and environmental protection. Principle 10 states that…

“[Human beings] are entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature”……

and that

 “The right to development must be fulfilled so as to equitably meet developmental and environmental needs of present and future generations.”

In 1992 the population numbered around 5.3 billion.

The have been many further conferences, declarations, treaties and non-binding instruments which make clear the link between human rights and the environment. Central to many of these is not just a clear relationship between the quality of the environment and the wellbeing and health of people, but the right to information about the environment and involvement in decision making.

Climate change

In September this year the International Panel on Climate Change published its Fifth Assessment Report on climate change. It of course met with the usual waves of approval and opprobrium. But the report is clear that warming of the climate system is…“unequivocal”… and that it is …extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century”.

The impacts of climate change do not distribute themselves equitably across the world. Food and water shortages are likely for many of the world’s already poorest countries. The impacts on human health are likely to be felt most severely by the poorer members of society, the elderly and the very young.  Climate change is a human rights issue.

At the time of the publication of the IPCC report the population was around 7.2 billion and is expected to reach 8.1 billion in 2025, 9.6 billion in 2050, and 10.9 billion by 2100.

The increase in population has been matched by an increase in affluence in many parts of the world and a corresponding increase in global consumption (although 827 million people still go to bed each night hungry). At the same time we waste much of that which we produce, both food and non-food goods.


This is not a misanthropic rant, nor is it Malthusian paranoia. Development over recent decades has seen enormous strides in improved health, education and wellbeing for many people. But the growth in world population is having catastrophic impacts on the natural environment as a result of climate change, habitat destruction and biodiversity loss, appropriation of freshwater for irrigation, and pollution. This in turn has dramatic impacts on human well-being and some of the fundamental rights associated with a safe and healthy environment.

We must find ways to protect the natural environment, but we must do it with humanity and in a way which respects fundamental human rights. If we don’t close this circle, the benefits of development and the progress with securing human rights will be undermined by the damage we are causing the natural world.

Extending rights

Our current approach to protecting the natural environment is demonstrably failing. Protection of the natural environment has largely been founded on the impact of its degradation on human populations.

Is it time to extend the notion of rights to the natural environment itself?

This may not be a far-fetched as it first seems. Rights are already extended to some, mainly domesticated, animals – for instance in legislation about the housing and treatment of farm animals. Some wild species of plants and animals are also given protection, although this is either piecemeal for specific species or in the form of designation status for special sites. However, this can fail to protect the underlying system which supports a particular species or habitat.

More fundamental would be to extend rights to whole ecosystems, say a river catchment or a forest – both the biotic and abiotic elements – the plants and animals as well as the water and soil.  Extension of the notion of rights to ecosystems would allow those rights to be recognised in law and represented through the legal system, not purely for the benefits and dis-benefits to the human population but in their own right.

Fanciful? One of the features of corporations in the UK and elsewhere is that they have a separate legal personality, known as ‘personhood’ or being ‘artificial persons’ independent of those that work within them. A company has legally enshrined rights which can be represented in law. So the principle of ascribing rights to non-human entities and even to non-sentient entities already exists.

That being the case then it is no enormous leap to imagine ecosystems having ‘personhood’ in the same way that companies do and therefore being capable of being legally represented. Bolivia has already made moves in this direction with the passing of a law of mother earth, which establishes 11 new rights for nature. They include the right to life and to exist; the right to continue vital cycles and processes free from human alteration; the right to pure water and clean air and the right not to be polluted.

Why might it work?  It offers a different way of looking at the natural world. Not one in which we protect only that which has immediate perceived benefits to us, but in which ecosystems are recognised for the entirety of their part in the global system.

Ultimately we are part of that global system although we may have deluded ourselves that we stand separate from it. In the end recognising ecosystems have rights may also protect many of the aspirations embedded in our views on human rights.

Time to extend rights to ecosystems?

Mike Townsend, Senior Conservation Adviser


About Kaye Brennan

Trying vegan, staying warm. Occasional bursts of words.
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25 Responses to Human rights and the environment – do trees have rights?

  1. Pingback: Biodiversity Offsetting – biophilia or biophobia (love nature or loathe it)? | Woodland Matters

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  3. Andy White says:

    I think we are asking the wrong question. There is little point in agreeing that a species has rights. It seems self evident to me and yet all too easily recinded as we have seen with the badger cull where even a species that is ‘protected’ can be indiscriminantly slaughtered because it is ‘simply the right thing to do’ (Cameron). What will help more, I beleive, is to establish and be clear about what human responsibilities are towards the natural world. We bang on about rights, mostly our own, without asking what our responsibilities are. I mean this in the sense of ‘ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.’ Was it JFK? Our resposibilities need codifying but we also need to be asking ourselves from one situation to the next, ‘what is required of me here?’

  4. Ash says:

    In answer to the original question “Do trees have rights?” Of course they do, as does everything else within an ecosystem. Where else can we live if we continue to destroy this planet? Ultimately the Earth will survive, in a different way, but the human race may not.

  5. From wiki on Plant Rights:

    In his dissent to the 1972 Sierra Club v. Morton decision by the United States Supreme Court, Justice William O. Douglas wrote about whether plants might have legal standing:

    “ Inanimate objects are sometimes parties in litigation. A ship has a legal personality, a fiction found useful for maritime purposes… So it should be as respects valleys, alpine meadows, rivers, lakes, estuaries, beaches, ridges, groves of trees, swampland, or even air that feels the destructive pressures of modern technology and modern life…The voice of the inanimate object, therefore, should not be stilled. ”

    Samuel Butler’s Erewhon contains a chapter, “The Views of an Erewhonian Philosopher Concerning the Rights of Vegetables”.

    The Swiss Constitution contains a provision requiring “account to be taken of the dignity of creation when handling animals, plants and other organisms”, and the Swiss government has conducted ethical studies pertaining to how the dignity of plants is to be protected.

    The single-issue Party for Plants entered candidates in the 2010 parliamentary election in The Netherlands.”

    Latest news from Boulder, Colorado, which leads the world in the matter of legal rights for plants and animals (and was coincidentally (?) the home of the late great Professor Al Bartlett):-

  6. I agree with June Mccarthy. Our street has such a lot of paving and gravel in the front gardens. People don’t seem to want to bother with planting, feeding and weeding to benefit the birds, bees and butterflies and bats.Then they wonder why they have not seen any and ask why there is an influx of insects like ants and flies

  7. I agree with Peter Kyte

  8. Humans are the only source of rights as they alone can articulate the concept and legislate for the enactment of rights. However what they can give can also be taken away – as evidenced on a small scale by the badger (a supposedly protected species) cull or the ease with which protection for ancient woodlands can be evaded. The whole ecosystem ought to be considered a moral client entitled to full protection (and just imagine the arguments about what that might entail) but it would not be hard to envisage such rights being annulled (or set aside) in favour of specific human needs for housing, food or…. golf courses. Although I risk the charge of semantic quibbling in the face of ecological disaster I believe that talking about an ethics of responsibility for nature is a better approach than the more abstract concept of rights. The first concept that has to be ditched though is the idea that humanity has dominion over nature with the concomitant idea that nature is there for us do do what we want with it. We are part of nature and second nature – the created and cultural world we have made – is equally dependent on and linked to this first nature. Humans are nature that has become self-aware but this does not mean that we should embrace Anthropocentrism which places humans at the top of a species hierarchy with the premise that the world was made for us.. Nor for that matter can we take up the opposing principle, biocentricity,which claims that all beings have equal intrinsic value and is bound up with the notion of a ‘biocentric democracy’ because that denies our unique situation. Our ability to create a second nature means we have an undue and increasingly disruptive effect on the world and this in turn creates the overriding need to embrace an ethics of responsibility, or complementarity. Such an ethics reflects our true role which is to create a fuller, richer world for all beings.

  9. Thinking people all over the world are coming to the same conclusions as the above. The earth’s resources are finite and we must strain every sinew to change the situation we find ourselves in. Our “lords & masters” care about nothing except wealth & power and keeping the rest of us in our place. So we need to think laterally. The natural environment, what’s left of it, must be protected by any means possible. It must be expanded too. We must go back to small scale, wildlife-friendly farming. We must oppose mass deforestation in other countries. We must oppose “frankenfoods”. Yes, Nature MUST have rights, otherwise we’re all doomed to extinction. This is not melodrama – it’s the truth.

  10. June McCarthy says:

    I am concerned that the environment is not properly represented or protected by the present ministerial system. Owen Paterson does a great job of representing farmers and the agricultural industry, but he appears to focus on and have a bias towards the exploitation of the environment for these groups, and the privileges and rights of private land owners, rather than conservation and protection of the natural environment in its own right and in the right of all people to enjoy the natural environment. He is a Minister for Human Exploitation of the Environment.

    All around me in my home town, I see trees cut down, hedges ripped out in so many private gardens, replaced by solid fences and paving slabs. Across the country, every day acres upon acres of private garden, trees, lawns and hedges, are being replaced by concrete. No one is keeping tally. No wonder our bird and other wildlife populations are plummeting! The major cause is blatantly obvious. Erosion and loss of habitat, a main part of that thousands of acres of garden habitat.

    Local and National Government need to encourage householders to value their gardens and trees more and give people an incentive to do so, ie a reduction in Council tax if you have more than two trees in your garden. Conversely tax those who have paved front gardens.

    Futhermore, on another issue, – I believe it is a very mistaken and cruel inhumane policy that has seen the slaughter of thousands of badgers and am very concerned at the killing of badgers based on incorrect population numbers and gross overestimation of same. I think ministers ought to be held to account by parliament for such a policy, flawed from the beginning by incorrect population statistics. Will we see a near extermination of badgers if we give politicians and their failed advisors free rein?

    • Jacquie Cox says:

      Well said June, I have the same concerns. It’s ironic isn’t it that badgers are a ‘protected species’ … unless the government decides to cull them.

    • Beverley Phillips says:

      I agree with you, June. It’s heartbreaking to have to witness all this destruction in order to park cars (and perhaps ignorance too?) We know why there are no more sparrows, don’t we. We know why other wildlife is disappearing. It really is time for incentives to encourage people to do the right thing. The carrot is always more effective than the stick. I wish I had a home with a huge garden – I would be able to plant out all the trees I have grown in pots. Sadly, I have no garden, and there are so few places in a big city where they can safely be planted.

      On the badger issue – I believe that the intensive farming of animals has caused the bovine tuberculosis problem, because these animals are pumped full of hormones and made to lead unnatural lives for the sake of profit. The badgers probably caught the disease from cattle, not the other way round.

  11. Don G says:

    I think you people have too much extra time on your plate. Sure ecosystems are important, however pushing humans down the list of importance is in the long run damaging the very reason why we as a species are special.

    • Andy White says:

      Special in the way that we are the only species that are happy to crap on its own doorstep? Is that what you mean? Special in that we are the only species that is also a global plague? Or the only species that wants more than it needs? or do you mean we are the only ones who think they can survive without an ecosystem…or the only ones who have an undying need to promote their own superiority? d) all of the above.

    • With the greatest respect, I don’t think anyone in this blog thinks humans are less important than ecosystems. On the contrary, we need healthy ecosystems and a healthy planet for our very survival as a species. If any of us have time on our hands, is it not better to use it for the good of all; to campaign for a more healthy, more balanced, more sustainable way of life?

    • Human beings are basically just highly intelligent primates. We are a part of nature and suggestions that we are a ‘special case’ are superficial and potentially misanthropic.

      • Jacquie says:

        Highly intelligent Steve? Are you sure?

        I am not sure I get what you mean about ‘misanthropic’. That is to say, I know what the word means, but not sure I understand the point you are making.

        • Well I don’t see any other species using electronic devices to add comments to a blog on the internet so I believe this implies a degree of intelligence considerably greater than any other animal. The question of whether this higher intelligence is put to its best use or applied correctly however is open to debate. The jury is I fear still out on this one. By misanthropic I meant that by denying our rootedness in nature and/or arrogating to ourselves a position floating above nature and having dominion over it we risk, by positing humanity as something it is not, harming it. I still cannot think of a better way of putting it I fear….

          • Jacquie says:

            All apes can be taught to use tools. So can many other animals. You know the saying about chimps and typewriters? Not sure that equates to superior intelligence. Equally, we are the only species that destroys the very thing we need for survival, out of greed no less. Doesn’t strike me as particularly intelligent. An intelligence of sorts maybe, but highly intelligent/ higher intelligence, or greater than any other animal? See here for real innate intelligence …


            : marked by a hatred or contempt for humankind
            (If you look in the dictionary, you will see a picture of me next to this definition)

            Humans believing themselves to be superior to other living things is not nearly so honest and honorable a thing as being a misanthrope. In fact, suggesting that it is misanthropic rather than just deserts is an insult to the true misanthrope. Don’t you think?

          • That some apes display the ability to use basic tools and can be taught to use tools indicates that the difference in intelligence is a matter of degree not quality. It may be, as Raymond Tallis proposes, simply a matter of humanity’s innate intelligence coupled with an opposable thumb that has got us to the position we hold. A room full of chimps bashing away at typewriters may produce a Shakespeare play but the trick is that they recognise that they have created a work of genius not that the blind meanderings of chance have produced the marks on the paper. Ok there is here a small danger of anthropomorphising intelligence – to make it equate with what we are good at -. but we are the only species that can formulate the concept in the first place.

    • Jacquie Cox says:

      Don, I made various attempts to respond to your comment … trying not to produce a bunch of spittle flecked vitriol. Sadly I failed. So I second what Andy said below. I would love for you to be specific about ‘the very thing’ you think is so special about humans, that people like us with too much time on our hands are damaging. I dare ya!

  12. Jacquie Cox says:

    It is pointless banging on about rights, human or otherwise, if nobody is prepared to stick their neck out for them, and demand that the rights are upheld.

  13. Sally says:

    As my Uncle always says – they are not making any more land. Once we lose it, it’s lost forever. Agree with Peter’s comment too.

  14. Peter Kyte says:

    Humanity in general, is of the opinion that the material world is solely there for their benefit, to be exploited as they see fit and think no further than that. Governments and big business, think only in terms of growth, profit and expansion. It is only when these organisation face challenge to their activities, is consideration given to nature, usually by some very small gesture, to reassure the public/customers, that they really do care about the environment.

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