Earth Matters: Do trees have rights?


I recently came upon the obituary of Christopher D. Stone in the New York Times, and while I had never heard of him, the headline “Backer of Legal Rights For Trees” caught my attention.

It turns out, Christopher Stone, lawyer and professor, offered the idea in a landmark article that we should give legal rights to the natural environment, which helped propel a global movement to grant nature the legal status of personhood. The article, “Should Trees Have Standing?” is also regarded by many as being a pivotal force in helping to launch the environmental movement.

Indigenous populations have conferred “rights” to the natural world for centuries. According to tradition, native peoples, from the Americas to Australia, feel a deep responsibility for the land and all living things and believe that complete human development is predicated on interaction with the soil, the air, the climate, the plants, and the animals of the places they live.

The Indigenous sense of place, and the importance of being in harmony with the earth, is embodied in many of their cultural traditions.

Here on Long Island, there were 13 Native American tribes when the European white man came to settle, and like other tribes across America, they revered the fertile land, the abundant fresh water and the food they hunted and harvested, doing as much to give back to nature as take from it.

When the natives harvested bark and wood from a living tree, they took what they needed without destroying the tree.

This, of course, is the opposite of what we do in our modern forestry and agricultural practices, where we, for example, clear-cut rain forests for more profitable large-scale cattle grazing operations and use pesticides and synthetic fertilizers on crops that contaminate our water and leave little life in the soil that is needed more now than ever for our very survival.

Just these two common practices are great contributors to our climate crisis.

Raising cattle on a large scale is a highly resource-intensive industry and the methane produced by the animals is a potent greenhouse gas. And the destruction of the biomass (or microbes) in the soil by mechanized and chemically-intensive farming prevents soil carbon sequestration, which many scientists believe can play a crucial role in reducing atmospheric CO2.

Regenerative agricultural practices that were used by Indigenous peoples can turn back the carbon clock.

The modern “rights of nature” movement, one that has been growing steadily for the past several decades, is way overdue. It is changing our thinking about and our relationship to nature – from property that is ours for the taking or an object to be exploited to something that we respect and care for.

In September of 2006, in Pennsylvania’s coal region, Tamaqua Borough passed the first-ever rights of nature law in the world. The dumping of toxic sewage sludge had emboldened hundreds of residents to act and an idea that made sense took root.

In 2008, Ecuador became the first country to codify the rights mechanism for the representation of nature and made it part of their constitution. It acknowledges that “nature in all its life forms has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles. And we – the people – have the legal authority to enforce these rights on behalf of ecosystems. The ecosystem itself can be named as the defendant.”

Bolivia has a law package dealing with what they call the rights of Mother Earth, New Zealand has granted rights of personhood to a forest, Columbia granted rights to a river and India recognizes the Ganges and Yamuna Rivers as legal persons. Even a wild rice crop, a staple of a Native American tribe, now has legal rights.

One of the most groundbreaking pieces of legislation is the “Lake Erie Bill of Rights,” which allows citizens to sue on behalf of the lake when it is being polluted. It is unique in that it is aimed at protecting the entire ecosystem, including the lake, its tributaries, and even the aquatic species living in the lake and those living off it! Again, it was the people of Toledo, Ohio who took matters into their own hands and made history! Lucky Lake Erie.

Tree sitters around the world have had mixed success, but now that we have momentum, it seems that this is the time for people and governments around the world to give trees rights.

Here in the Town of North Hempstead we have concerned citizens who care deeply about trees. Their main concerns are that mature trees are being removed because of aesthetics, some non-native species are being planted that will not thrive or provide sanctuary or food for the fauna of our region, and not enough trees are being planted to replace those lost to hurricanes, heavy wet snows and strong wind storms.

There is a pressing need to build the tree canopy on Long Island to address climate change.

Amending the town’s tree policy to reflect the ecological role that trees play in our changing climate is at the core of the citizen’s “ask.” They even want to plant micro-forests, which are aimed at restoring biodiversity. These mini natural forests grow fast and can store 40 times more carbon than a single species planting.

A micro-forest can be as small as the size of a tennis court, planted with a broad variety of native species with the aim to recreate the layers of a natural forest.

Short of giving trees rights of personhood, I look forward to our town joining other municipalities across the world to recognize the value of trees and make laws to protect them.

“The care of the Earth is our most ancient and most worthy, and after all, our most pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it and to foster its renewal is our only hope.” Wendell Berry


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