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In defence of Mother Nature

An aerial shot of the northern rivers


25 May 2023

We are all aware of the laws of nature. But what of the rights of nature under the law? Are the laws that protect people translatable to the protection of nature? Is nature a defendant?


In defence of Mother Nature

Southern Cross University's Dr Alessandro "Alex" Pelizzon would say yes. What's more, he has prosecuted the case for what is known as Ecological Jurisprudence around the world. He maintains it is the fastest growing legal movement of the 21st century.

“Ecological Jurisprudence is based on the idea that our Earth is the total sum of all ecosystems within which humans exist, and that humans are members of this interconnected network of ecosystems, beings and phenomena," says Alex. "Human wellbeing is connected to, dependent on and ultimately predicated upon the wellbeing of the network as a whole.

“Nature is the place we inhabit, the common ground beneath our feet, and we have a responsibility for everything that surrounds us. Ecological Jurisprudence opens that space as a law for nature. Its time is now."

Many countries now recognise the rights of nature as a means of promoting sustainable development. Ecuador, Bolivia, Colombia, New Zealand, India, Uganda and France either have or are moving towards having Ecological Jurisprudence enshrined in legislation. While primarily this has involved the identification of rivers as both natural features and legal persons, momentum is rapid and diverse.

Alex has played a significant role in this progress. For example, in 2019 he moderated a panel on Harmony with Nature at the UN General Assembly in New York, where international delegates discussed the implications of education and law and their impact on nature.

“There are two theories in law," he says, "one being that all laws are made by humans for the benefit of humans (a theory known as legal positivism). The second is natural law theory, which suggests that law exists irrespective of human desires.”

"Ecological Jurisprudence says law can neither be purely arbitrary nor self-evident. Rather, it holds that the law is an emerging property of an ongoing dialogue with nature, and a comparative tool to engage different legal traditions."

It is an exciting concept, although Alex admits many issues remain unresolved, asking: "Who speaks for nature or determines its rights?" Who has agency for nature? How do I represent a river? How does anyone know what a river wants?"

Interestingly, he may soon have a stronger grasp on some of the answers, given his work with the 2022 Biennale of Sydney, which has identified rivers, wetlands, saltwater and freshwater ecosystems as dynamic living systems with varying degrees of political and legal agency.

A new way of thinking

As much as all this may sound ‘out there’ to some, Alex contends that Ecological Jurisprudence is opening new ways of thinking about the cosmos by recognising the entire universe may have agency. His credentials are impeccable, beginning in his homeland of Italy, traversing the world and culminating in his current role as Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Business, Law and Arts at Southern Cross University.

“I studied law at the University of Turin, specialising in comparative and legal anthropology, and I lived and studied in Peru not long after. I have always been interested in how societies regulate themselves," he says.

"I first came to Australia as an exchange student in 1991. I lived 400km north-east of Perth and it was there I fell in love with Country. I loved that heartfelt, spiritual and actual connection between Aboriginal people, culture, nature and land. It is Ecological Jurisprudence in action, and it struck me like lightning."

The experience was transformative, bringing Alex back to Australia in 2005 when, as he describes it, he stumbled on his PhD: "I was at the University of Wollongong and I met Aunty Barbara Nicholson, a Wodi Wodi woman, who became my mentor and my friend. Through her, I really learned how to approach and acknowledge Country."

While Alex had been involved in Indigenous rights since his university days – including helping to establish a research group that participated in and supported the drafting of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples – meeting Aunty Barbara was cathartic.

His PhD explored Native Title and legal pluralism in the Illawarra region, looking at traditional narratives and interest in land and how these are not considered by the Native Title process. Alex believes the process has simply become another form of colonialism – a compromising of Country.

In 2009, he was in Adelaide for the first Wild Law and Earth Jurisprudence Conference. Next, he ended up in Ecuador, where he became a founding member of the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature. Along the way, he became a founding member of the Australian Earth Laws Alliance.

Alex joined Southern Cross University in 2010, on Valentine’s Day, an appropriate date for this passionate Italian by birth and Australian by choice. He is delighted that the University has the highest concentration of academics in Australia who are actively researching in Ecological Jurisprudence.