MSU Law Rights of Nature Conference emphasizes the planet's future is now


Panelists at the MSU?Law conference on ‘Rights of Nature’ included (l-r) Phoebe Zarnetske, Carlos Contreras, Macarena Montes, Nichole Keway Biber, David Favre, Maria Mercedes Sanchez, and Angie Vega.

Photo courtesy of MSU?Law

Establishing a foundation for future efforts seeking to preserve nature was the goal of the September 14 groundbreaking conference, “New Legal Perspectives: The Synergy of Law and Science to Protect the Rights of Nature.” Hosted by the Michigan State University College of Law, the conference presented a diverse panel with some of the nation’s top advocates on the concept of the “Rights of Nature,” as well as animal law and ecology.

In opening the day-long event, MSU?Law Dean Linda Sheryl Greene said, “The future is now, and I am excited to know we’re on the cutting edge of this movement. When one or more people are gathered together, great work is done.”

Greene also recognized the creators of the conference, Animal Law Program’s Professor David Favre, a renowned international expert on animal rights law, and Animal Law Fellow Angie Vega. Collaborating on the event with the Animal Law Program was the MSU Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies.

The conference featured panelists from both the academic and non-academic fields discussing the growing global movement known as the “Rights of Nature” and the legal definitions involving nature and individual animals.
Among the panelists were two Visiting Fellows from Harvard Law Schools’ Brooks McCormick Jr. Animal Law & Policy Program, Carlos Contreras Lopez and Macarena Montes.

Other featured panelists included Maria Mercedes Sanchez from the United Nations Harmony with Nature Program and Nichole Keway Biber, a tribal citizen of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians. Michigan State University professors, Phoebe Lehmann Zarnetske, an associate professor of spatial and community ecology in the Department of Integrative Biology; and Jerry Urquhart, an associate professor at the Lyman Briggs College and Fisheries and Wildlife, contributed to the dialogue.

Each panelist delivered a unique perspective on the issues facing the environment and how biodiversity plays such a key role.

“If we don’t protect nature, we’re doing ourselves a disservice,” said Zarnetske said.

 Sanchez said, “We are on the verge of the sixth mass extinction (of Earth). We can change if we have something to change it.”

That’s why the Rights of Nature movement has found a foothold, according to Urquhart, who says it is important to distinguish this movement from past environmental efforts.

“We should look at this as a new movement,” Urquhart said. “It’s incredibly inspiring. Embracing Rights of Nature and its development of laws is something new.”

Lopez spoke of three environmental projects that showed how South America has embraced Rights of Nature. He focused on two spots in his native Colombia – the Atrato River and the Colombia portion of the Amazon Rainforest and the Mar Menor lagoon in Spain. All three have been badly damaged environmentally through pollution, deforestation, over-farming, mining, and more. Public awareness and protest helped slow the damage and create the political interest allowing the laws which recognized these ecosystems as subjects of rights.

He went on to say that factions of governments and business interests have spent time and money trying to halt these improvements. Lopez says that convincing politicians that a strong environment with healthy biodiversity benefits everyone is an important step forward. “

Rights of Nature should not depend on who’s in office,” he said. “Let’s have a debate. Let’s talk with all the parties. This is not left wing vs. right wing. This is good for all of us.”

All parties agreed that there is much work to do to address climate change and environmental damages. But there have been successes. In 2008, Ecuador enacted the first Constitution protecting the rights of nature and, in 2022, a UN General Assembly passed a resolution that advocated simply, “The human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment.”

Sanchez said, “This decade, we have to make peace with Mother Nature.”


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