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Philippine bill seeks to grant nature the same legal rights as humans

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  • A coalition in the Philippines is pushing for legislation of a “right of nature” bill, which would confer legal personhood on nature.
  • The bill, should it pass into law, will create a paradigm shift in existing human-centered environmental laws and make individuals, governments and corporations more responsible and accountable when dealing with nature.
  • The bill, currently in the drafting, adequately represents the connectedness between indigenous peoples and their ancestral domains, an indigenous women’s rights activist says.
  • The bill is part of a growing movement around the world to recognize ecosystems and species as legal entities, as a way of boosting their protection amid intensifying threats.
MANILA — Who speaks up in court for a dolphin or a turtle when its habitat gets polluted? Does an animal even have the right to legal redress in such a case?

Those are the questions underlying a push by environmental activists and lawyers in the Philippines to expand legal protection for the environment, strengthen indigenous people’s rights over ancestral domain lands, and hold individuals, government and corporations accountable for environmental abuses and lapses.

Initiated by the Philippine-Misereor Partnership Inc. (PMPI), the “right of nature” bill is currently in the draft stage. Though it has yet to be filed with either house of Congress, when it does it will be the first bill of its kind to be considered for legislation in the Philippines.

Inspired by similar initiatives in Latin American countries such as Ecuador and Bolivia, the RON bill’s main purpose is to grant nature legal personhood. This would endow it with rights currently associated with humans, including the right to exist and thrive; to habitat and diversity of life; to water and clean air; to equilibrium; to restoration; to be free from chemical trespass; to natural evolution; and to develop sustainably.

“We want to recognize nature as a distinct entity with legal personality,” says Macki Maderazo, the PMPI’s legal counsel. “When you say it has a legal personality then a person can represent nature before a court of law and can seek damages or prosecute persons who committed violations under the bill,” he adds.

The bill, touted as “revolutionary” among lawmakers, is expected to create a paradigm shift in existing environmental protection perspectives. Current Philippine laws on the environment are human-centered, Maderazo says, focusing on protecting the environmental rights of individuals but not of the environment itself. The RON bill presents a different perspective: nature gets legal protection because it’s recognized as a distinct legal entity that deserves legal representation.

Activists have previously tried to pursue the case for legal personhood for the environment in court. In 2007, a group of environment lawyers led by Benjamin Cabrido Jr. filed a case against the Japan Petroleum Exploration Co. Ltd. (JAPEX) over its oil exploration, development and exploitation activities in the Tañon Strait, the country’s largest marine protected area, between the islands of Cebu and Negros.

Among the petitioners named in the case were “Resident Marine Mammals,” including “toothed whales, dolphins, porpoises, and other [cetacean] species inhabiting Tañon Strait represented by human beings in their capacity as legal guardians of the lesser life-forms and as responsible stewards of God’s creations.”

After an eight-year legal battle, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the petitioners and declared null and void the service contract between JAPEX and the energy department. The court justified its ruling on apparent violations of the 1987 Constitution, the National Integrated Protected Systems Act (NIPAS) and the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) decree.

PMPI clamoured for a right of nature bill during President Rodrigo Duterte’s 2019 State of the Nation Address (SONA) last July 22. Image by PMPI (Photo from

But the ruling held that animals have no “legal personality” and thus could not be represented by lawyers.

“In our jurisdiction, persons and entities are recognized both in law and the Rules of Court as having standing to sue and, therefore, may be properly represented as real parties in interest. The same cannot be said about animals,” the ruling stated. “There is no way that we, humans, can claim to speak for animals let alone present that they would wish to use our court system, which is designed to ensure that humans seriously carry their responsibility including ensuring a viable ecology for themselves, which of course includes compassion for all living things.”

According to Maderazo, the position of the Supreme Court essentially means that nature, its ecosystems and animals are “not a subject of the law and therefore not a subject of its protection.”

“What we protect are the people who will protect the dolphins, not the dolphin itself,” he says. “But if you killed the dolphins, it will have impacts on the ecosystem and eventually affect the people. We want to expand the discussion with this bill.”

The framework also syncs with indigenous people’s perspective of interconnectedness with nature, affirming that indigenous peoples are one with and cannot exist without nature, says Arline Santiago of the Igorota Foundation, a women’s community organization in the Cordilleras region.

She says the bill and its implementing rules and regulations will also support the Indigenous People’s Rights Act (IPRA), particularly by clarifying the process to acquire free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) — a requirement for corporations when initiating projects within ancestral domain territories.

“As of now … what’s lacking in the IPRA is the details of the process of acquiring the FPIC,” Santiago says, adding that the law doesn’t properly state the materials that corporations should prepare in obtaining the consent. “In our experience, corporations fulfill the technical requirements only while doing the FPIC. Some don’t even have any feasibility studies yet they want an FPIC.”

Maderazo says he also believes the bill will complement and strengthen environmental and indigenous people’s laws in the country, though should it be enacted, the bill will require a thorough reassessment of existing laws.

The bill also details a mechanism for just compensation for environmental damages, which would be allocated for the restoration of damaged areas, Maderazo says. “If there are monetary award for the damages on a coral reef or mangrove area, then this money will go to the trust fund and this money will ensure the restoration and protection of the area,” he says.

The Philippine right of nature bill is part of a growing movement worldwide to recognize ecosystems and species as legal entities, as a way of boosting their protection amid intensifying threats. In 2017, a Māori tribe in New Zealand won unprecedented legal recognition of its river, the Whanganui, as a living entity by the state. In Argentina in 2014, a captive orangutan was granted “non-human person rights,” and in 2016 a captive chimpanzee in Peru was similarly granted legal personhood.

In 2014, the Indian Supreme Court ruled that all non-human animals have both statutory and constitutional rights in India. That was followed by a 2015 decision from the Delhi High Court that birds have the fundamental legal right to fly, and a 2018 decision from the Uttarakhand High Court that identified members of the entire animal kingdom as persons.
Banner image of a turtle in the Tubbataha Reefs National Park in the Philippines. Image by Gregory Piper/Coral Reef Image Bank

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