Rights of Nature

Jessica den Outer

Activities:Giving nature legal rights

Founder:Jessica den Outer


Location:Everywhere in the world

Author Nadine Maarhuis Photographer Gabriela Hengeveld Published 27 May 2024 Read time 8 minutes
Jessica den Outer


Every human being has the legal right to exist. Nature deserves that same right, according to ‘rights of nature’ expert Jessica den Outer. Since 2017, she has been advocating to protect ecosystems like forests and rivers by making them equal before the law. “We have to change our worldview and ask ourselves: what does nature need and how can we represent those needs?”

The Amazon Jessica den Outer wants to grant rights to ecosystems like the Amazon rainforest. Photographer: Fabio Quierli (A WaterBear film production)

“My grandfather used to take me outside to look at the insects in the grass. I think that’s where my love for nature was born”, says Jessica den Outer. During law school, she discovered that existing environmental laws and regulations inadequately protect nature, and that a different approach is possible. “We find it completely normal when a company or a municipality is a legal entity. Why shouldn’t a forest or a river be granted that same legal status?” 

The right to exist, thrive, flourish and maintain ecological processes: these are the basic rights of nature that over 400 citizens’ initiatives around the world are trying to bring into being. To shed light on both the successes and the challenges associated with one of the world’s fastest growing movements, Jessica wrote the book ‘Rights of Nature’. “People often think that it originated fairly recently in Ecuador, but back in 1972, the American professor Christopher D. Stone already proposed that we should appoint guardians for nature to represent its interests, just like we do with minors”, she explains. “At first, his idea was dismissed as whimsical, but in 2006, a small town in Pennsylvania granted nature rights to halt pollution. After that, many other places and countries followed, including Ecuador, who embedded the rights of nature in its constitution and New Zealand, who made the Whanganui river a legal entity.”

Jessica den Outer Jessica den Outer: “We need to include the perspective of nature in everything we do.” Photographer: Gabriela Hengeveld
Jessica den Outer Jessica den Outer. Photographer: Gabriela Hengeveld

Indigenous people

Because all countries have different legal frameworks, rights of nature are applied differently across the globe. Yet, according to Jessica, what strings them together, is that the legal changes are almost always instigated by citizens, and more specifically indigenous people. “For example, in Ecuador, indigenous people advocated for equality between nature and human beings, because it matches their worldview. Likewise in New Zealand, where the Maori pointed out that a river cannot be the property of any human being, and therefore it makes sense when by law it belongs to itself”, Jessica explains. “But in Europe the movement is starting to gain traction too, mainly for environmental reasons.” 

Mar Menor

This is what happened in Spain, where Mar Menor – a heavily polluted lagoon in Murcia – became the first European ecosystem that was granted legal rights. “Due to nitrates from surrounding agriculture, poor sewage networks and excess waste, Mar Menor has been a so-called ‘green soup’ full of algae for years”, says Jessica. “In 2019, a heatwave starved the water of its last remaining oxygen, causing thousands of marine animals to suffocate and jump out of the water. In response, a group of law students and their professor wrote a legal proposal to turn the tide.” Since then, their law has been passed and a group of citizens, scientists and local government officials now speak on behalf of the lagoon, helping it flourish again.

Uitgelichte quote

Equality between human beings and nature matches our worldview
Jessica den Outer
Jessica den Outer in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Photographer: Gabriela Hengeveld

Far from symbolic

Rights of nature are far from symbolic, as is proven by the Los Cedros cloud forest in Ecuador, which was in danger of being cut down by 68 percent in 2021 to make way for mining. “But because the rights of nature are embedded in the Ecuadorian constitution, anyone is allowed to represent these rights in court”, Jessica explains. “A group of local residents and NGO’s joined forces and argued: ‘If nature has the right to exist, how come a mining company has obtained a permit to destroy it?’ After a long legal battle, they won, protecting the forest and setting an important precedent for other deforestation cases in Ecuador.” 

Fortunately, the rights of nature – once granted – don’t always have to be reinforced during long and tiring legal battles. “Representatives of the New Zealand government and the indigenous Maori people, who are the guardians of the Whanganui River, have been resolving conflicts through dialogue for years”, Jessica says. “This is fantastic news. It shows that a certain level of consensus has been reached and that people truly want to safeguard the rights of nature, instead of doing it because they’re obliged to.” 

The Meuse

To help the movement find footing in the Netherlands too, Jessica launched the Rights of Nature Foundation and started an initiative to protect the river Meuse. “People in Limburg, a province in the south of the Netherlands where the river enters our country, have a very special bond with this river. They even affectionately call it ‘Mother Meuse”, she shares, “and yet, it’s one of the most heavily polluted rivers in Europe.” 

Together with a group of lawyers, students, environmentalists and entrepreneurs, in 2022 Jessica drafted a petition, which she presented to the Dutch parliament. “To this day, we haven’t heard back”, she shares. “This was a hard lesson for me, because whilst politicians are obliged to accept a petition, they don’t necessarily have to act upon it. Fortunately, a growing number of political parties mentions rights of nature in their manifestos, so we will continue building upon that.” 

Jessica den Outer Photographer: Gabriela Hengeveld
biodiversity It’s possible to grant citizenship to pollinators. Photographer: Gabriela Hengeveld

Regenerative agriculture

In addition to providing adequate protection for ecosystems, rights of nature could also accelerate the transition to regenerative agriculture, Jessica explains. “After all, once nature has the right to flourish, there is simply no room for harmful practices such as monocultures and the use of pesticides. Instead, people start farming in a placebased way, focussing on: what type of agriculture best suits this specific soil type, the local biodiversity and the needs of the community? Instead of imposing our will on the land.” 

However, to get there, both local and national governments need to incorporate the rights of nature into their day-to-day policies, Jessica stresses. “For example by establishing green subsidies and transition funds, so farmers are supported in their transition and are actually able to start working in a way that restores nature.” 

Citizenship for pollinators

Another thing we can do on a local level, is appointing guardians to represent the voice of nature in a specific municipality, Jessica suggests, such as organic and regenerative farmers, who know what nature needs. “These representatives can engage in a dialogue, on behalf of nature, to help accelerate the transition towards regenerative agriculture.” Granting citizenship to pollinators, like Costa Rica has done, is another powerful tool. Because as soon as wild bees, butterflies, bumblebees and hummingbirds have the right to exist and flourish, food forests and pesticide-free agriculture are automatically encouraged. Jessica: “Then farms, but also cities, will transform.” 

Uitgelichte quote

We must always include nature's perspective. Not just in our laws, but in everything we do

A new worldview

“When I started out, I always thought that as soon as the rights of nature are embedded in law, my job was done. Now I know that my mission is only successful once we look at the world differently”, Jessica shares. “What does nature need and how can we represent those needs?” She hopes that the many places where nature has been granted rights will inspire more people to adopt an Earth-centered worldview. “So we always include nature’s perspective. Not just in our laws, but in everything we do.” 

Originally published in Dutch on the 25th of October 2023. Translated by Nadine Maarhuis on the 10th of June 2024.

Jessica den Outer
Jessica den Outer. Photographer: Gabriela Hengeveld