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Stop Burying the Lede: The Essential Role of Indigenous Law(s) in Creating Rights of Nature

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  02 October 2020

Erin O'Donnell
The University of Melbourne, Melbourne (Australia). Email:
Anne Poelina
The University of Notre Dame Australia, Broome (Australia). Email:
Alessandro Pelizzon
Southern Cross University, Lismore (Australia). Email:
Cristy Clark
University of Canberra, Canberra (Australia). Email:


The rapid emergence of rights of Nature over the past decade across multiple contexts has fostered increasing awareness, recognition, and, ultimately, acceptance of rights of Nature by the global community. Yet, too often, both scholarly publications and news articles bury the lede – namely, that the most transformative cases of rights of Nature have been consistently influenced and often actually led by Indigenous peoples. In this article we explore the ontologies of rights of Nature and earth jurisprudence, and the intersections of these movements with the leadership of Indigenous peoples in claiming and giving effect to their own rights (while acknowledging that not all Indigenous peoples support rights of Nature). Based on early observations, we discern an emerging trend of increased efficacy, longevity, and transformative potential being linked to a strongly pluralist approach of lawmaking and environmental management. A truly transformative and pluralist ecological jurisprudence can be achieved only by enabling, and empowering, Indigenous leadership.

Symposium Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press, 2020

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This contribution is part of a collection of articles growing out of a Research Workshop on ‘Indigenous Water Rights in Comparative Law’, held at the University of Canterbury School of Law, Christchurch (New Zealand), on 7 Dec. 2018, funded by the New Zealand Law Foundation.

We acknowledge the contributions of all authors to this article, which has been written as part of a highly collaborative process and to which all authors were essential contributors. This article is the product of building relationships and trust between Indigenous and non-Indigenous authors, which required time and patience. In the quiet spaces of reflection and shared understanding, we can begin to hear silenced voices, and the song of Country. We also acknowledge that the system of hierarchical ordering of authorship is very ‘western’ and leaves insufficient room for the essential contribution each author makes in a truly collaborative process. While we acknowledge the role of the ‘lead’ author in bringing us together, de-colonization of academia needs to include a reframing of authorship that truly values and reflects the shared knowledge and learnings between all authors. Lastly, we would like to thank the anonymous reviewers and Donna Bagnall for their helpful comments and feedback.


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6 As demonstrated by the exponential participation of scholars and NGOs at the anniversary gathering of the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature held in Ecuador in 2018: see Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature, ‘Rights of Nature Anniversary Symposium’, 27–29 Sept. 2018, Quito (Ecuador), available at:; see also the list compiled by the United Nations (UN): UN Harmony with Nature, ‘Rights of Nature Law, Policy and Education’, available at:

7 This has not been an absolute shift, as evidenced by the recent recognition of rights of nature for the entire state (departamento) of Nariño in Colombia, and a line of decisions by various state High Courts in India granting legal/living person status to all of nature: see O'Donnell, E., ‘At the Intersection of the Sacred and the Legal: Rights for Nature in Uttarakhand, India’ (2018) 30(1) Journal of Environmental Law, pp. 135–44, at 136CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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26 See, e.g., Ley de Derechos de la Madre Tierra 2010 [Law of Mother Earth], Ley No. 71 [Statute No. 71] (Bolivia); and Ley Marco de la Madre Tierra y Desarrollo Integral Para Vivir Bien [Law of the Framework of Mother Earth and Integral Development for Living Well], Ley No. 300 [Statute No. 300] (Bolivia); Te Urewera Act 2014 (New Zealand), and Te Awa Tupua (Whanganui Claims Settlement) Act 2017 (New Zealand); Constitution of Ecuador 2008, preamble, Arts 71–74; Constitution of Bolivia 2008, Arts 33 and 34. For a list of local ordinances in the United States (US), see Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, available at:

27 Stone, n. 22 above, p. 453.

28 Cullinan, n. 23 above; see also Burdon, n. 3 above.

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30 Most countries include legislation to create corporations, for example, although legal personality for natural entities may require legislative reform.

31 This articulation of personality stems from Naffine, N., ‘Who Are Law's Persons? From Cheshire Cats to Responsible Subjects’ (2003) 66(3) The Modern Law Review, pp. 346 –67, at 350CrossRefGoogle Scholar. However, it is worth noting recent challenges to this construction that endeavour to re-articulate personhood with a greater emphasis on competence to undertake specific actions: see Kurki, V.A.J., A Theory of Legal Personhood (Oxford University Press, 2019)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

32 O'Donnell & Talbot-Jones, n. 5 above, p. 1.

33 In doing so, this also aligns more closely with some Indigenous ontologies of the nature–human relationship, as discussed above.

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38 See, e.g., Gare, A., The Philosophical Foundations of Ecological Civilization (Routledge, 2016)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

39 See, e.g., Knox, J.H. & Pejan, R. (eds), The Human Right to a Healthy Environment (Cambridge University Press, 2018)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Bratspies, R., ‘Do We Need a Human Right to a Healthy Environment?’ (2015) 13(1) Santa Clara Journal of International Law, pp. 3169, at 42Google Scholar.

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48 Takacs, D., ‘Are Koalas Fungible: Biodiversity Offsetting and the Law’ (2017) 26(2) NYU Environmental Law Journal, pp. 161226, at 217Google Scholar (emphasis added).

49 ‘Country’ is the culturally specific term adopted by Australian Aboriginal peoples to refer to the ‘nexus of being’, the matrix of interconnectedness, identity and belonging within which they are inscribed: see Rose, D. Bird, Dingo Makes Us Human: Life and Land in Australian Culture (Cambridge University Press, 1992)Google Scholar.

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51 Scott, I. et al. , ‘Environmental Law. Disrupted’ (2019) 49(1) Environmental Law Reporter, pp. 10038–62, at 10039Google Scholar.

52 Macpherson, E.J., Indigenous Water Rights in Law and Regulation: Lessons from Comparative Experience (Cambridge University Press, 2019), p. 41CrossRefGoogle Scholar (citing O'Bryan, K., Indigenous Rights and Water Resource Management: Not Just Another Stakeholder (Routledge, 2019), p. 208Google Scholar).

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54 Carter, J., ‘Displacing Indigenous Cultural Landscapes: The Naturalistic Gaze at Fraser Island World Heritage Area’ (2010) 48(4) Geographical Research, pp. 398410, at 398CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Godden, L., ‘Preserving Natural Heritage: Nature as Other’ (1998) 22(3) Melbourne University Law Review, pp. 719–42, at 724, 738Google Scholar.

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60 See, e.g., the ‘ecosystem people’ in Gadgil, M., ‘Sacred Groves’ (2018) 319(6) Scientific American, pp. 4857, at 48Google Scholar.

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63 Morris, J.D.K. & Ruru, J., ‘Giving Voice to Rivers: Legal Personality as a Vehicle for Recognising Indigenous Peoples’ Relationships to Water?’ (2010) 14(2) Australian Indigenous Law Review, pp. 4962Google Scholar; Watson, I., Aboriginal Peoples, Colonialism and International Law: Raw Law (Routledge, 2015)Google Scholar.

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65 Becker, M., Pachakutik: Indigenous Movements and Electoral Politics in Ecuador (Rowman and Littlefield, 2010), p. xiGoogle Scholar.

66 The role of NGOs was also important here, and it is worth acknowledging the influence of CELDF and its work on the articulation of rights of Nature within local ordinances in the US.

67 Constitution of Ecuador 2008, Art. 71.

68 Law of Mother Earth, n. 26 above.

69 I. Zambrana, ‘Mother Earth and Education’, Ninth Interactive Dialogue of the General Assembly on Harmony with Nature, UN General Assembly, 22 Apr. 2019, available at:

70 N. 12 above.

71 J. Ruru, ‘Tūhoe-Crown Settlement: Te Urewera Act 2014’ (2014) (Oct.) Māori Law Review online articles, available at:

72 Te Awa Tupua (Whanganui River Claims Settlement) Act 2017, n. 26 above, ss. 12, 14(1).

73 Aho, L. Te, ‘Indigenous Challenges to Enhance Freshwater Governance and Management in Aotearoa New Zealand: The Waikato River Settlement’ (2009) 20(5–6) Journal of Water Law, pp. 285–92, at 285Google Scholar.

74 Te Aho, ibid.

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77 Ruru, n. 75 above.

78 Centro de Estudios para la Justicia Social ‘Tierra Digna’ & Ors v. President of the Republic & Ors [2016] Corte Constituciónal [Constitutional Court], Sala Sexta de Revision [Sixth Chamber] (Colombia), No. T-622 of 2016 (10 Nov. 2016); see specific discussion of how the Court drew on the Aotearoa example in Macpherson & Clavijo Ospina, n. 4 above, pp. 290, 291.

79 Mohd. Salim v. State of Uttarakhand & Ors, WPPIL 126/2014, High Court of Uttarakhand (2017) (India).

80 Srivastav, P., ‘Legal Personality of Ganga and Ecocentrism: A Critical Review’ (2019) 4 Cambridge Law Review, pp. 151–68, at 162Google Scholar.

81 Gover, K., ‘Legal Pluralism and Indigenous Legal Traditions’, in Berman, P.S. (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Global Legal Pluralism (Oxford University Press, forthcoming 2020)Google Scholar.

82 See S. Biggs, ‘Ponca Nation of Oklahoma to Recognize the Rights of Nature to Ban Fracking’, Movement Rights Blog, 1 Nov. 2017, available at:

83 F. Bibeau, ‘RIghts of Manoomin’, Ninth Interactive Dialogue of the General Assembly on Harmony with Nature, UN General Assembly, 22 Apr. 2019, video link available at:

84 See CELDF, ‘Press Release: Ho-Chunk Nation General Council Approves Rights of Nature Constitutional Amendment’, 17 Sept. 2018, available at:

85 See J.A. Schertow, ‘The Yurok Nation Just Established the Rights of the Klamath River’, Cultural Survival, 21 May 2019, available at:

86 Burdon, n. 3 above, p. 74; see also the withdrawal of the case to recognize the legal personhood of the Colorado River, which was withdrawn by the proponent on 3 Dec. 2017; copy of filing available at:

87 We note that these examples do not seek to cover the field in relation to all of the various permutations of rights of Nature, as this would be beyond the scope of this article.

88 Indigeneity is a complex and fraught space in the Indian and Bangladeshi contexts, and is often difficult to define: see Karlsson, B.G. & Subba, T.B. (eds), Indigeneity in India (Kegan Paul, 2006)Google Scholar; Parmar, P., Indigeneity and Legal Pluralism in India: Claims, Histories, Meanings (Cambridge University Press, 2015)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

89 O'Donnell, n. 37 above, pp. 1–2

90 UN Conference on Environment and Development, ‘The Dublin Statement on Water and Sustainable Development’, 31 Jan. 1992, available at:

91 Bakker, K., ‘Neoliberalizing Nature? Market Environmentalism in Water Supply in England and Wales’, in Heynen, N. et al. (eds), Neoliberal Environments: False Promises and Unnatural Consequences (Routledge, 2007), pp. 101–13Google Scholar.

92 O'Bryan, n. 52 above, p. 39.

93 Macpherson, E., ‘Beyond Recognition: Lessons from Chile for Allocating Indigenous Water Rights in Australia’ (2017) 40(3) University of New South Wales Law Journal , pp. 1130–69, at 1161–8Google Scholar.

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95 Macpherson & Clavijo Ospina, n. 4 above, p. 293.

96 Te Awa Tupua (Whanganui River Claims Settlement) Act 2017, n. 26 above, s. 13; see also Macpherson & Clavijo Ospina, n. 4 above, p. 293.

97 Mohd. Salim v. State of Uttarakhand & Ors, n. 79 above, paras 9, 10; Human Rights and Peace for Bangladesh v. Government of Bangladesh & Ors [2016] High Court Division, Writ Petition No. 13989 of 2016, Judgment of 3 Feb. 2019, p. 272 (trans. from Bangla by M.S. Islam).

98 Toledo Municipal Code, Charter of the City of Toledo, Ohio, Ch. XVII, ‘Lake Erie Bill of Rights’, § 253.

99 Dennis-McCarthy, n. 59 above.

100 State of Uttarakhand & Ors v. Mohd Salim & Ors, Petition for Special Leave to Appeal 016879/2017, Supreme Court of India (7 July 2017).

101 Human Rights and Peace for Bangladesh v. Government of Bangladesh & Ors, n. 97 above, Directive 4.

102 Toledo Municipal Code, n. 98 above; see also Eckstein et al., n. 64 above (specifically essay by E. O'Donnell).

103 The preamble, in particular, makes no reference to Indigenous peoples or their enduring relationship with the lake: see Toledo Municipal Code, n. 98 above.

104 O'Donnell, n. 7 above, p. 142.

105 O'Donnell, n. 37 above, p. 195.

106 For more on the role of the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung people and how they shaped this legislation, see State Government of Victoria, Yarra River Action Plan: Wilip-gin Birrarung Murron (State of Victoria Department of Environment, Land, Water & Planning, 2017), pp. iv, 12.

107 One of the authors, E. O'Donnell, is a member of the Birrarung Council, the voice for the Birrarung/Yarra River, which includes mandatory representation of at least two Elders of the Wurundjeri Woi-Wurrung people. See also O'Bryan, K., ‘Giving a Voice to the River and the Role of Indigenous People: The Whanganui River Settlement and River Management in Victoria’ (2017) 20 Australian Indigenous Law Review, pp. 4877Google Scholar.

108 For simplicity, we refer to the river by the Nyikina name of Mardoowarra, but we acknowledge all Traditional Owners of the Martuwarra/Mardoowarra, including the members of the Martuwarra Fitzroy River Council: the Wilinggin, Kija, Bunuba, Walmajarri, Nyikina Mangala and Warrwa peoples.

109 See short definition of Country, n. 49 above.

110 Poelina, A., ‘Protecting the River of Life’, in Aigner, K. (ed.), Australia: The Vatican Museum's Indigenous Collection (Aboriginal Studies Press, 2017), p. 217Google Scholar.

111 Connor, J., Nicol, C. Regan & T., Environmental, Cultural and Social Capital as a Core Asset for the Martuwarra (Fitzroy River) and Its People (University of South Australia, 2019), p. 5Google Scholar.

112 Poelina, A., Taylor, K.S. & Perdrisat, I., ‘Martuwarra Fitzroy River Council: An Indigenous Cultural Approach to Collaborative Water Governance’ (2019) 26(3) Australasian Journal of Environmental Management, pp. 236–54, at 237CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

113 Milgin, A., ‘Woonyoomboo’, in Thompson, L. (ed.), Woonyoomboo: A Story from Jarlmadangah Community Selected Work (Pearson Rigby, 2008), pp. 615Google Scholar; Hattersley, C. (ed.), Nyikina Stories: Woonyoomboo and Jandamarra (Madjulla Inc., 2009)Google Scholar.

114 See, specifically, Martuwarra Fitzroy River Council & M. Jones (producer & director), The Serpent's Tale (online video – password protected at request of Elders) (Gaia Media, 2020). See also the Sharing Stories video of A. Milgin, IY2019: Knowledge of Woonyoomboo Lives On, Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development, Communications, available at:

115 Lim, M., Poelina, A. & Bagnall, D., ‘Can the Fitzroy River Realisation of the First Declaration Ensure the Laws of the River and Secure Sustainable and Equitable Futures for the West Kimberley?’ (2017) 32(1) Australian Environment Review, pp. 1824, at 18Google Scholar.

116 See, generally, Clark et al., n. 4 above; Macpherson, n. 52 above; O'Donnell, n. 37 above.

117 Native title is complex, and in many ways has simply operated to preserve the status quo in a process that is entirely regulated and controlled by the Australian state: see Short, D., ‘The Social Construction of Indigenous “Native Title” Land Rights in Australia’ (2007) 55(6) Current Sociology, pp. 857–76CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Further, native title is also extremely limited when it comes to water management: see Macpherson, n. 93 above.

118 Commonwealth of Australia, National Native Title Tribunal, Geospatial Services, ‘Kimberley Native Title Claimant Applications and Determination Areas as per the Federal Court’, 2019, available at:

119 Native Title Act 1993 (Australia), ss. 56, 57.

120 Poelina, Taylor & Perdrisat, n. 112 above, p. 237.

121 Blowes, R., ‘Governments: Can You Trust Them with Your Traditional Title: Mabo and Fiduciary Obligations of Governments’ (1993) 15(2) Sydney Law Review, pp. 254–67, at 254Google Scholar.

122 A. Poelina, member MFRC (personal communication).

123 A. Poelina, Yoongoorrookoo Creator of the Law (Madjulla Association and Nyikina Inc., 2017), available at:

124 Watson, I., ‘What Is the Mainstream? The Laws of First Nations Peoples’, in Levy, R. et al. (eds), New Directions for Law in Australia: Essays in Contemporary Law Reform (Australian National University Press, 2017), pp. 213–20, at 215Google Scholar.

125 Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Culture Centre (KALaCC), Cultural Solutions: Shared Pathways for Engagement in the Kimberley (KALaCC, 2017).

126 This is similar to the work of Māori in Aotearoa New Zealand: see Ruru, n. 75 above.

127 Connor, Regan & Nicol, n. 111 above.

128 A. Poelina & J. Fisher, Martuwarra Fitzroy River Council Strategic Communications Brief (Martuwarra Fitzroy River Council, 2020), available at:

129 The Birrarung/Yarra is recognized as a living, but not a legal, entity; although environmental water management includes legal persons which can act indirectly on behalf of rivers, this is not formally acknowledged in legislation: see O'Donnell, n. 35 above.

130 Eckstein et al., n. 64 above (see specifically the essay by V. Marshall).

131 Lim, Poelina & Bagnall, n. 115 above, pp. 18–9.

132 Macpherson, n. 52 above, p. 41.

133 N. 14 above.

134 Davis, M., ‘To Bind or Not To Bind: The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Five Years On’ (2012) 19 Australian International Law Journal, pp. 1748Google ScholarPubMed.

135 See Descola, P., Beyond Nature and Culture (University of Chicago Press, 2013)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

136 Muecke, n. 9 above.

137 Dennis-McCarthy, n. 59 above.

138 Scott et al., n. 51 above; Pelizzon, n. 19 above. For a specific example, see Queensland's now repealed Wild Rivers Act 2005, which attempted to limit all human activity, including that of Indigenous people, within designated river catchments: see T. Neal, ‘Overturn, Axe and Bury: The LNP and Queensland's Wild Rivers Act’, The Conversation, 2 Aug. 2012, available at:

139 O'Donnell, n. 37 above, pp. 188, 195.

140 Takacs, n. 48 above, pp. 217–8.

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Stop Burying the Lede: The Essential Role of Indigenous Law(s) in Creating Rights of Nature
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