Combating environmental degradation in Nigeria through the recognition of the Rights of Nature

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City sky line and pollution

By Cleverline T Brown, PhD student, a member of the Environmental Law and Sustainability Research Group.

Environmental degradation has increasingly plagued the human and natural environment especially since the discovery of petroleum in Nigeria. The right to a clean and healthy environment although provided for in the Constitution,[1] has been seen to be non-justiciable[2] except by alternative pathways such as through the application of the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights (ACHPR) [3] or in a foreign court. It is also a fact that environmental pollution cases have been lost due to technicalities.[4] This has emboldened some petroleum sector operators to continue bad environmental practices. Hence the need for alternative ways to combat environmental degradation from bad environmental practices such as the recognition of the rights of nature.

Global development of rights of nature

The concept of the rights of nature is an emerging field that is gradually being recognised by countries around the world. While the rights of human victims of environmental harm are protected under human rights law,[5] other victims of environmental harm such as nature and natural resources, exist and have been left behind by policy and law-making thereby rendering them invisible and silenced in the search for justice.[6] Rights of nature are rights that nature and natural resources possess, as distinct from the right of humans to a healthy environment. It can be a reformulation and expansion of existing human rights and duties in the context of environmental protection.[7] In some jurisdictions like India, New Zealand, Ecuador, Brazil, Columbia, Bolivia, nature is accorded human status.[8] This implies the right to be protected just like human beings under human rights laws; and the right to enforce such rights under the law.[9] Stone noted that until the rightless thing receives its right, we cannot see it as anything but a thing for the use of ‘us’ – those who are holding the rights at the time.[10] More countries are legally recognising the rights of nature in their domains. In February 2021, the Innu Council of Ekuanitshit recognised the Magpie River, a 3000km (186 miles) waterway in the cote Nord region of the Canadian province of Quebec, as a legal person.[11] Some of the sources of the rights of nature in these jurisdictions include case law,[12] the Constitution and other legal instruments.[13]

Rights of Nature in Nigeria

The non-justiciability of the environmental rights provisions in the Constitution of Nigeria has prompted victims of environmental harm to seek access to courts in pursuit of justice, through other pathways.[14] While this effort has yielded some positive results, it has not yielded an express pronouncement on the rights of nature and natural resources per se to be protected, specifically in Nigeria. When environmental harm occurs, the rights sought to be protected are the rights of the human victims alone and these rights do not extend to the protection of nature. Recognition of the rights of nature in Nigeria can expand the definition of ‘victims of environmental harm’ and extend the frontiers on which environmental degradation can be combatted. The closest to rights of nature practiced in Nigeria is the designation of protected areas. These areas include forest reserves and plantations, national parks, nature reserves and gazetted forests.[15] This implies that the areas so designated are protected against farming, hunting, trapping, timber cutting and other human activities. It does not, however, protect these natural resources and rivers from the effect of oil spills and other negative impacts of petroleum sector activities.[16] This does not also give the protected areas personhood or the right to enforce the protected status. Legally recognising the rights of nature in Nigeria could be a game-changer in the move to combat environmental harm especially from petroleum sector operations. It is argued that an outright pronouncement on the rights of nature and natural resources can provide an alternative option in the fight against environmental degradation from environmental harm and easy access to courts to enforce those rights.

Challenges of Rights of Nature

While some gains have been made by the countries that have taken the lead in establishing rights of nature,[17] challenges remain on the full realisation of the effect of the rights of nature. First, it is difficult to assess how far the courts will go on the issue of enforcement of such rights. This is because the concept of rights of nature has not been rigorously tested before the courts to establish precedents.[18] Second, like every other law, the challenges of compliance and enforcement remain due to the lack of political will to enforce compliance with the laws.[19] Third, governments still place the exploitation of natural resources for gains over the protection of nature and natural resources. This is because often, the government relies on the proceeds from the exploitation of natural resources to provide basic amenities for its citizens.[20] Fourth, individuals and small businesses fear that such rights will lead to a multiplicity of lawsuits threatening their businesses and livelihood.[21] Fifth, it is believed that existing legal and statutory frameworks adequately cater to protect nature and new laws stipulating new rights are not required.[22]

Conclusion

The significance of the attention on the rights of nature is vital to the fight against global environmental degradation. If more countries recognise the rights of nature, it could put a check on how nature is interacted with by human beings because these rights will be put into consideration in such interactions. Such considerations can be in form of complying with environmental regulations, policies and standards. Therefore, it is contended that if compliance and enforcement of environmental laws are effectively observed, the environmental rights of human beings and nature can easily be realised.

Recognition of the rights of nature could lead to stronger natural resource laws. Legally recognised rights of nature and the human right to a healthy environment can work simultaneously to promote effective compliance and enforcement because humans have an interconnectedness with the natural world and should acknowledge the rights of nature to exist, persist and maintain its vital cycles.[23] The legal recognition of the rights of nature by Nigeria can be an effective legal tool to save the Nigerian environment from a gradual but steady decline.[24]


[1] S 20 of the Constitution of Nigeria 1999 requires the government of Nigeria to protect and improve the environment and safeguard the water, air and land, forest and wildlife of Nigeria and s 33 (1) which guarantees the right to life of every citizen of Nigeria.

[2] See s 6 (6) c of the Constitution of Nigeria 1999 which essentially prevents any enquiry into any issue or question as to whether any act of omission by any authority or person or as to whether any law or any judicial decision is in conformity with the Fundamental Objectives and Directive Principles of State Policy set out in Chapter II of this Constitution (under which a protected environment is provided for in the Constitution).

[3] Articles 4 which provides for the right to life and 24 which provides the right to a general satisfactory environment.

[4]  Such as standing and loopholes in the law. See Oronto Douglas v Shell Petroleum Development Company Limited & Ors (1998) LPELR-CA/L/143/97 Law Pavilion Electronic Law Report- Court of Appeal. Some of the oil pollution related cases arising from some Ogoni communities fall into this category.

[5] EO Popoola, ‘Moving the Battlefields: Foreign Jurisdictions and Environmental Justice in Nigeria’ <https://items.ssrc.org/…environments/moving-the-battlefields-foreign-jurisd…> accessed 19 August 2019.

[6] It has been argued that other victims of environmental harm exist and have been left behind by policy and law-making thereby rendering them invisible and silenced in the search for justice. See M Hall, Environmental Harm: The Missing Victims?, vol 90 (Centre for Crime and Justice Studies 2012) 1.

[7] D Shelton, ‘Human Rights, Environmental Rights, and the Right to Environment’ (1991) 28(1) Stanford Journal of International law 103, 117.

[8] Examples are New Zealand’s Whanganui River was granted rights of personhood in 2017, India’s Ganges River, Article 71 of the 2008 Constitution of Ecuador, essentially provides that nature has the right to integral respect for its existence and the maintenance and regenerations of its life’s cycle’s structure, functions and evolutionary processes. Examples of jurisdictions that have also recognised the legal rights of nature include Bolivia (Law of the Rights of Mother Earth and the Framework Law of Mother Earth and Integral Development for Living Well 2012); Columbia (A 2018 Supreme Court decision held the Columbian Amazon to be a subject of rights based on the Columbian Constitutional’s Courts ruling that Atrato River had legal rights to be protected, conserved and restored); India (The 2018 Uttarakhand High Court decision declaring the animal kingdom to legal entities with rights, duties and liabilities of a living person); and the United States of America where Tamaqua Borough in Pennsylvania recognised the rights of natural communities and ecosystems in a 2006 ordinance) see G Chapron, Y Epstein and JV Lopez-Bao, ‘A Rights Revolution for Nature’ (2019) 363(6434) Science 1392, 1393

[9] CD Stone, Should Trees Have Standing? Law, Morality, and the Environment (Oxford University Press 2010) 264.

[10] ibid 3.

[11] J Kestler-D’Amours, ‘This River in Canada is now a ‘Legal Person’’ (2021) <https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/4/3/this-river-in-canada-now-legal-person> accessed 12 April 2021.

[12] As in the Indian cases of Maharaj Singh v Indian Oil Corporation (1999) A. I. R. 81; M. I. Builders v. Radhey Shyam Sahu M.C. [1999] A.I.R.  SC 2468; Mehta v Kamal Nath (1997) 1 S.C.C. 388.

[13] Constitution of the Republic of Ecuador 2008 Chapter 7, Articles 71, 72 and 73; Te Urewera Act 2014 of New Zealand; Constitution of Brazil 1993.

[14] Popoola (n 5).

[15] OI Imasuen, JN Oshodi, TUS Onyeobi, ‘Protected areas for environmental sustainability in Nigeria’ (2013) 17 (1) Journal of Applied Science and Environmental Management 53, 56.

[16] AP Onyena and K Sam, ‘A Review of the Threat of Oil Exploitation to Mangrove Ecosystem: Insights from Niger Delta, Nigeria (2020) 22 Global Ecology and Conservation 1, 3.

[17] S Borràs, ‘New Transitions from Human Rights to the Environment to the Rights of Nature.’ (2016) 5(1) Transnational Environmental Law 113, 143.

[18] CR Giraldo, ‘Does Nature Have Rights? Successes and Challenges in Implementing the Rights of Nature in Ecuador’ (2013) <https://constitutionnet.org/news/does-nature-have-rights-successes-and-challenges-implementing-rights-nature-ecuador> accessed 4 December 2020.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] OA Houck, ‘Noah’s Second Voyage: The Rights of Nature as Law’ (2017) 31(1) Tulane Environmental Law Journal 1, 29.

[22] C McDonough, ‘Will the River Ever Get a Chance to Speak? Standing Up for the Legal Rights of Nature’ (2020) 31(1) Villanova Environmental Law Journal 143, 161.

[23] Borràs (n 17) 143.

[24] DR Boyd, The Rights of Nature: A Legal Revolution That Could Save the World (ECW Press 2017) 280.