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Crime and Punishment - When Environmental Destruction is the Crime


While protesters against environmental destruction are being imprisoned, the real criminals who are laying waste to vast areas of the natural world and who are contributing to our collective ecocide via carbon dioxide emissions, suffer few consequences. Illegal logging and fishing are on the rise, as is the release of toxic waste on land and into the air and water. Trafficking in endangered species also continues with few repercussions. Read more here.

To list just a few examples, in the UK, BP has been accused of dumping industrial waste from drilling into a marine protected zone in the Shetlands, without apparent penalty. In Australia, gas and oil company Woodside plans to do the same near Australia’s Ningaloo Reef, perhaps the only one that has not yet been terminally damaged by climate change, though this is currently being challenged in court. Also in Australia, Rio Tinto’s destruction of a 46,000-year-old Aboriginal heritage site Juukan Gorge has resulted in little more than a slap on the wrist and a few resignations by directors and CEOs. 

There is also a big ‘prosecution gap’ in the USA. In 2014 there were more than 64,000 facilities in violation of federal environmental laws, yet of those only half of 1% a year are ever prosecuted and due to funding cuts and low staff numbers, that number has been falling since 2001. In yet another assault on the environment, the USA's renegade Supreme Court has just restricted the capacity of the EPA to limit carbon dioxide emissions from power plants – a major blow to the Biden Administration's plans to cut emissions from power plants in half by the end of the year. It also looks as if  extensive oil drilling will be allowed in the Arctic, another Trump inspired move, although Biden originally opposed it when he came to office.

Making ecocide an international crime

As international Human Rights lawyer Richard J. Rodgers who worked for the International Criminal Court, points out,

“There is no international criminal law that can be applied, neatly and directly, to many of the worst assaults on our natural environments — whether degradation of forests, poisoning of rivers, or extinction of animal species.”

However, this could change as several European countries such as France, Belgium and the Netherlands are beginning to recognise the crime of ecocide and making it a criminal offence in the International Court along with Genocide, War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity. Other countries such as Spain and Luxembourg are taking interest and at least two small low -lying countries - the Maldives and Vanuatu at risk from sea -level rise, have begun court proceedings. Read more about Europe here.

New ways to protect nature

Defenders of the natural world are also using new legal mechanisms to protect nature. The rationale for it is that our present methods are failing badly, our economic system sees nature only as a commodity for exploitation and our laws are piecemeal – protecting the air, or water or maybe this species or that, but rarely whole ecosystems.  These new legal concepts also defend nature or natural features in their own right, not just because of the impact of environmental degradation on humans, as is the case with most existing environmental law.   

The Rights of Nature Movement

Rights of Nature Legislation involves changes to a country’s constitution. In 2008 Ecuador became the first country to do this. In July this year, in another first, Ecuador's Waorani tribe was able to protect a large area of the Amazon from mining and logging using the new law.  Here's Jane Goodall congratulating Ecuador and explaining why it's important.



Chile became the second country to protect the Right of Nature in its constitution in August 2021 and some 12 countries including Bangladesh, Mexico, Canada and Bolivia have now joined the movement which is taking off like wildfire. As of 2018, 28 countries, cities or municipalities had either passed legislation or had it pending. Panama did so in February this year. Nepal is drawing up a Bill of Rights for the Himalayas. Panama did so Uganda leads in Africa and Ireland and France are leading the way in Europe. Read more here.

Starting with Pittsburgh which had a spectacular win against fracking, dozens of communities in the USA now have Right of Nature laws. The Ojibwe Tribe in Minnesota has a court challenge in progress regarding the Rights of Wild Rice, while the White Band Tribe in Seattle is calling for the protection of the Rights of Salmon. In Colorado, one group - Manitou Pollinators, is working with the City of Manitou Springs on the Rights of Pollinators which involve reducing pesticide use, integrated pest management and organic farming practices. Read more here.

The Blue Mountains Council, situated in a World Heritage Area is the first Australian Council to incorporate the Rights of Nature into its activities. 

Personhood for Natural Features

New Zealand started this ball rolling in 2014 when it sought to protect a beautiful ancient forest on the North Island, called Te Urewera. Unlike the previous cases, New Zealand is not using constitutional powers, but investing features themselves with personhood, which means that polluters and others who damage the forest can be sued directly. Since then, other features have been granted the same legal status. They include the Whanganui River and its tributaries, Mt. Taranaki, Lake Waikaremoana and Panekire Range. Read more here.

Other countries have followed suit here too, including Canada’s Magpie Creek, Colombia’s Atrato River, Brazil’s Lagoa da Conceicao, parts of the Amazon and Australia’s Yarra River. The same legal standing is also being sought for the Colorado River in the USA. The Supreme Court of Uttarakhand in India declared similar standing for the Ganges and the Yamuna Rivers, though these were overturned by India’s Supreme Court. Read more here.

The Right to  a Healthy Environment as a Human Right

 As of October 2021, the UN Human Rights Council has also recognised that the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment is a Human Right which underlies most other rights.

In the words of Inger Anderson, Executive Director of the Human Rights Council,

“.. the triple planetary crisis of climate change, nature and biodiversity loss, and pollution and waste are a huge threat to humanity’s present and future generations. This crisis is undermining almost every other right we have already recognised.

“Nine out of ten children are exposed to deadly air pollution, violating their right to health. An average of four environmental defenders are murdered every week, violating their right to life. Climate change is forcing people out of their homes, violating their right to adequate housing. Nature and biodiversity are in rapid decline, violating the right to self-determination and cultural identity of indigenous peoples.”

Although 80% of countries have incorporated the right to a healthy environment into their legal frameworks, its application remains inconsistent. For this reason the Council is now urging members of the General Assembly to formally adopt the Right to a Clean, Healthy and Sustainable Environment as a Human Right. It hopes that it will inspire renewed impetus for national governments to take further action and motivate those countries which have not yet done so, to do so now, just as the Right to Water and Sanitation inspired many governments to action in 2011.

The Council argues far from hindering business, the move will not only enable people to stand up for the environment and their rights, but will also provide a fair and consistent regulatory framework for business. Read more here.

To find out more:

Note - Most groups are interlinked or global in nature with a slightly different focus. 

Click here for Australia

GARN - Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature is more Eurocentric, but also covers Africa, Latin America, Young People, Academic and Legal Aspects

CDER - The Centre for Democratic and Environmental Rights has more on Canada, the US and Latin America. Also has training and workshops. There is also legal training.

The United Nations of Nature includes links to groups in India, Africa, The Balkans, Australia and North and South America.

Next: Protecting Whistleblowers. Was going to write about this this week, but there's currently a court case in progress about it, so hope to finish it next time with good news.