African drive to embrace all life

The the World Wide Fund for Nature’s latest Living Planet Report revealed this week that even two Earths would not be able to sustain current patterns of human consumption by 2030, but a global groundswell movement is nevertheless growing in favour of a legal framework that ensures the rights of nature.

In South Africa, civil society groups are mobilising around a draft People’s Charter for Africa. Couched in similar form and language to the Freedom Charter, it undertakes “to respect and defend the rights of all beings to fulfil their role within the community of life”.

Environmental lawyer Cormac Cullinan, who assisted in drawing up the draft charter, said it was a pan-African version of the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth.

Launched in April 2010 at a people’s congress in Bolivia that was attended by 35 000 delegates, the natural rights approach encapsulated in the universal declaration is gaining force in a rapidly emerging global movement.

“People are saying this is what we think needs to be done and we will do it. If governments join us, that’s good, but if not, we will do it ourselves. The same thing happened with apartheid,” Cullinan said.

Green economy
Both documents contain an alternative vision to the “green economy” being pushed by Western governments and the bureaucracy that burdened giant United Nations conferences such as the COP17 climate change talks late last year and the Rio+20 Earth Summit that will be staged in Brazil in June.

Twenty years after the first Rio Earth summit environmental sustainability was getting worse, not better, the biennial Living Planet Report stated. Swelling human populations, mass migration to cities, increasing energy use and soaring carbon dioxide emissions are putting a greater squeeze on the planet’s resources than ever before.

“The growing demand for resources is putting tremendous pressures on our planet’s biodiversity and is threatening South Africa’s future security, health and wellbeing,” said Morné du Plessis, chief executive of WWF South Africa.

“We are using 50% more resources than the Earth can sustainably produce and unless we change course that number will grow fast. By 2030, even two planets will not be enough.”

Cullinan said these major global challenges needed game-breaking strategies to shift social values and structures towards ecological sustainability.

Rights of nature laws
“Currently, most legal systems only recognise humans and corporations as legal subjects capable of having legal rights. Until legal systems recognise and protect the rights of all aspects of nature to make their contribution to the integrity and functioning of Earth, they will continue to be ineffective in striking an ecologically acceptable balance between the interests of humans and those of natural communities,” Cullinan said.

In recent years Bolivia and Ecuador have changed their Constitutions to grant nature equal rights to humans, and dozens of municipalities in the United States have adopted rights of nature laws. In January, the Portland city council joined several others, including those of Los Angeles and New York City, in supporting an amendment to the United States Constitution that would revoke the clause giving corporations the same rights as natural persons.

At Rio+20, the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature aims to deliver a petition it hopes will be signed by at least one million people, asking governments around the world to support the universal declaration.

Cullinan said the draft African charter would be part of that process and an interim steering committee had been set up to get input on the draft from civil society groups in South Africa and, hopefully, other parts of Africa.

“The draft charter seeks to articulate an indigenous African perspective and to reflect traditional African ethics that are common to the vast majority of ethnic groups throughout Africa. African ethics have the potential to make an important contribution to the resolution of global environmental crises such as climate change,” he said.

In the run-up to COP17, the draft was carried on the “Climate Train” and circulated widely among communities around South Africa. During the talks in Durban it was endorsed by various civil groups, said Christelle Terreblanche from the national environmental agency Indalo Yethu, which is helping to facilitate talks about the draft.

She said a meeting of civil society groups in April decided that discussions about the draft had to be prioritised and the interim steering committee was due to meet this week to decide how to proceed.

See the People’s Charter and commentary at

The pledge for all things to live in harmony
The draft People’s Charter for Africa is a pledge “to strive wholeheartedly together to live in harmony within the community of life and to respect and defend the rights of all beings to fulfil their role within that community”.

The main undertakings to achieve this include:

  • Earth is sacred: no person or legal entity has the right to ­pollute or degrade the soils, waters and atmosphere that sustain life.
  • All will live well: Respect the rights of all other members of the natural communities to which we belong so that all can live well in harmony with one another.
  • A giving for every taking: Every person and each generation will maintain natural balances by giving to natural communities in return for what they receive.
  • Life before property and profit: The rights of present and future generations to live in harmony in healthy natural communities will prevail over the rights of any person or legal entity to property or profits. The interests of corporations, the state and other artificial entities will not be permitted to take precedence over the interests of natural communities.


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Fiona Macleod
Fiona Macleod

Fiona Macleod is an environmental writer for the Mail & Guardian newspaper and editor of the M&G Greening the Future and Investing in the Future supplements.

She is also editor of Lowveld Living magazine in Mpumalanga.

An award-winning journalist, she was previously environmental editor of the M&G for 10 years and was awarded the Nick Steele award for environmental conservation.

She is a former editor of Earthyear magazine, chief sub-editor and assistant editor of the M&G, editor-in-chief of HomeGrown magazines, managing editor of True Love and production editor of The Executive.

She served terms on the judging panels of the SANParks Kudu Awards and The Green Trust Awards. She also worked as a freelance writer, editor and producer of several books, including Your Guide to Green Living, A Social Contract: The Way Forward and Fighting for Justice.

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