The struggle for community land and rights of nature  

This year has been another record-breaking one exceeding all so-called “points of no return” when it comes to the climate emergency. The damage that has been done to ecosystems, biodiversity, and people’s livelihoods and lives cannot be overstated. In the ever-shrinking window of opportunity to “secure a liveable and sustainable future for all”, the need for actions to effectively move us towards achieving climate justice could not be greater.  

Yet achieving climate justice requires so much more than adopting mitigation and adaptation measures, or setting targets for net zero. It requires a complete overhaul of the status quo to address the historical conditions and systems of oppression that have fuelled the climate crisis. This includes the dismantling of (neo)colonial capitalist structures that are baked into our laws, and replacing them with legal frameworks that properly honour communities and protect our planet, such as the proper recognition of community land and the rights of nature. 

All around us we can see examples of the laws and legal constructs that protect (neo)colonial capitalist structures over nature, the environment, and communities. I was born and raised in Northern Ireland, where Systemic Justice held our summer retreat. Over the months following that retreat, I have been following the news from home about a blue-green algae outbreak in Lough Neagh, a lake that supplies 40% of Northern Ireland’s drinking water.  

In the early 1600s, Northern Ireland was subject to an imperialist conquest by English and Scottish landowner settlers (the Plantation of Ulster). Lough Neagh was not spared from this process of colonisation. To this day, even though the water in the lake is publicly owned, the lake’s bed and banks continue to be owned by a member of the English aristocracy, the Earl of Shaftsbury. When recently asked about whether he took personal responsibility for the current outbreak in the lake, the Earl shook off any accountability claiming that “the issues at the moment are to do with the water and our ownership is the bed and soil so the current situation is not our responsibility”.  

This incident is just one small, recent, personal example that highlights how those who care for, protect, and live off the natural resources on our land are all too often not the people who have legal rights over that land in the form of “legal ownership”. This approach to property law that is rooted in capitalism and imperialism complicates the legal process of protecting the land to save our planet at best, and renders it impossible at worst.  

Indigenous peoples and local communities protect and guard 80% of the Earth’s biodiversity in the forests, deserts, grasslands, and marine environments. Yet, it has been estimated that only 10% of the world’s land is recognised under national laws as belonging to indigenous peoples and other local communities. This leaves them with few rights that they can rely on to protect the land, their cultural practices that are tied to the land, and their livelihoods that are sustained from it. It also means they are left with few legal means to protect the biodiversity and ecological wellbeing.  

This stands in stark contrast to the “rights” of private corporations to ravage, or “extract” from and “exploit”, land they have no claim to other than the pursuit of profit. Take, for example, the legal threats that have been made by an international mining company which has been fighting for years to obtain an exploitation license over land in South Greenland. This land not only contains critical minerals, it also contains uranium and thorium which would pose a health hazard to local communities if they were to be emitted or extracted in the mining process. While the mining project was being set up, Greenland introduced a uranium ban. This effectively prevented the company from obtaining an extraction license over the land. The company has put together a team of lawyers and is seeking to enforce its “right to extract”. If this “right to extract” is denied, the company is threatening to sue for damages which, if awarded, would potentially destroy Greenland’s economy.  

This is just one example of how the law and the courts are being used to protect private interests in land at the expense of local communities. It is vital that more cases be taken to court that represent the interests of those who are guarding and protecting nature and our environment. Cases brought by indigenous communities, such as Sámi communities and Tiwi islanders exemplify how legal claims concerning climate and the environment can be – and need to be – framed within broader struggles for indigenous land rights, anti-racism, cultural rights, and local communities’ self-determination. Some of these cases are featured in our “Guide for legal action” to illustrate the ways in which communities can wield litigation strategies to take control over legal issues concerning their communities and their land.  

Alongside these efforts, there have also been advocacy and litigation campaigns pushing for enforcement of the “rights of nature”: rights that inherently belong to bodies of water, forests, farmlands, and other natural resources or ecosystems. In practice, rights of nature bestow legal representation to a group of caretakers – which can include farmers, scientists, and others who use, manage, guard, and occupy the land or resource. For instance, last year, Spain granted legal rights to a salt-water lagoon “to exist as an ecosystem and to evolve naturally”.  

We cannot have climate justice without justice for indigenous peoples and local communities. This includes approaching climate justice litigation from a land rights and rights to nature perspective. To circumvent the harms produced by our legal system, indigenous and local communities need be in the driver’s seat when it comes to identifying legal avenues and designing litigation strategies. After all, they have had stewardship over the environment long before (neo)colonial property laws were created. The way of thinking that environmentalism and conservation is separate from questions of justice and reparations needs to be replaced by movement and community-led approaches that properly “secure a liveable and sustainable future for all”. 

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