The implications of recognizing the Rights of Nature in Africa

A necessary paradigm shift in the conservation of life on the continent

Source: Wansi, 2023. Link here.

Inès Carine Singhe,
Environmental Researcher and Lecturer at Laval University.
Director of the OIDN African Chapter.

Biodiversity conservation in Africa is a crucial challenge in the face of the climate emergency and the continuing degradation of ecosystems. Current legal systems, often tainted by an anthropocentric vision, have for the most part led to the over-exploitation of resources (forests, water, minerals, etc.), resulting in environmental crises on both sides of the continent. In this context, the emergence of the concept of Rights of Nature offers a new perspective for rethinking traditional approaches to conservation. Inspired by thinkers such as Thomas Berry and his vision of the “jurisprudence of the Earth”, the recognition of the Rights of Nature is an innovative perspective that overturns long-established paradigms. Rather than seeing Nature as a mere resource to be exploited, this approach emphasizes the intrinsic value of ecosystems and species, conferring legal status and protection on them. Although this idea has already been adopted in some parts of the world, it is particularly resonant in Africa, where the stakes of development and environmental preservation very often clash.

Environmental challenges in Africa

Africa faces a multitude of environmental challenges that threaten the continent’s biodiversity and ecosystems. Deforestation, overexploitation of natural resources, habitat loss due to urban and agricultural expansion, and pollution are among the most worrying problems (Corell, 2003) Darkoh 2009; Kidanemariam 2013; Mpofu 2013). These problems are exacerbated by factors such as population growth, poverty, and unfavorable international trade conditions (Darkoh 2009; Kidanemariam 2013). These anthropogenic pressures have significant consequences for flora and fauna, jeopardizing the survival of many endemic and fragile species on the one hand, and development, sustainability and health on the other (Kidanemariam 2013). Desertification in Africa has amplified the consequences of droughts, as illustrated by the Horn of Africa in 2020, which experienced the most severe droughts in 40 years. Countries such as Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, Djibouti, Kenya and Sudan have been in distress ever since. According to the Climate Vulnerability Index 2021, nine of the world’s ten most vulnerable countries are in sub-Saharan Africa, including Chad, Central African Republic, Eritrea, Guinea-Bissau, Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Niger, Liberia and Somalia.

Man in a mule cart traveling along a dry bridle path

Source: Foss, 2013. Link here.

Towards a renewed vision of environmental management and conservation

In the face of these challenges, conventional conservation approaches and strategies centred on the creation of national parks and nature reserves, although having played a crucial role in protecting certain ecosystems on the continent in the past, have often proved insufficient. Very often, they have failed to include the rights and needs of local populations in decision-making; they have failed to resolve conflicts between conservation and the development needs of riparian communities, leading to social conflict and increased resistance to conservation (Adams et al., 2004). In addition, habitat fragmentation caused by  the creation of protected areas can compromise ecological connectivity and the survival of migratory species at certain points.

To meet these challenges, it is imperative to coordinate efforts at local, national, regional and international levels. Capacity-building in urban planning and management, and the implementation of policies and regulations are then necessary (Darkoh 2009; Mpofu 2013). To achieve this, it is becoming urgent to rethink development models to integrate environmental and sustainability considerations. The emerging concept of the Rights of Nature represents a significant evolution in the way humans perceive and treat the environment. Crafted and advocated by influential thinkers like Christopher Stone, renowned for his seminal work “Should Trees Have Standing?” (1972), Thomas Berry, a trailblazer in advancing the acknowledgment of Nature’s rights through his ecological studies, and Cormac Cullinan, acclaimed author of “Wild Law: A Manifesto for Earth Justice,” this vision prompts profound inquiries into the intricate connection between humanity and Nature.  Rights of Nature recognize the intrinsic value of ecosystems and natural entities, attributing legal rights to them and placing them on the same level as human beings in the legal sphere. 

Concrete examples of the recognition of Nature’s rights have emerged around the world, giving rise to exciting legal and ethical debates. In Ecuador, the 2008 Constitution was one of the first to explicitly recognize the rights of Nature, affirming that Nature has the right “to exist, maintain and regenerate itself”. The Magpie River in Canada, the Atrato River and the Amazon region in Colombia, and the Mar Menor lagoon in Spain are now considered subjects of rights in their own right (Meyer, 2023). These regions are no longer simply resources to be exploited, but entities to be protected and respected under the law. Another inspiring example is the integration of Nature’s rights by the Blue Mountains City Council, located in the Australian state of New South Wales, as a fundamental principle in its planning and activities. By becoming the first region in Australia to adopt “Rights of Nature” as a fundamental principle (Earthlaws, 2023), Blue Mountains has paved the way for enhanced protection of ecosystems and endangered species in its area, and this move will also encourage discussions on how to promote and implement the recognition of Rights of Nature throughout Australia. These examples may inspire the case of Africa, which has so far seen little concrete action on this front. However, signs of evolution are emerging, with examples such as Uganda’s recent integration of the movement in March 2019, when it recognized the rights of Nature in its environmental code.

A look at sustainable resource management in Africa: the benefits?

Two people in a dry body of water

Source: Tanzania Digest, 2023. Link here.

Mitigating climate change

Like many other regions in the world, the major crisis of climate change is hitting Africa hard. It is characterized by abrupt changes in seasons, rising temperatures, climatic unpredictability and more recurrent and severe droughts. Recognition of Nature’s rights offers essential support in mitigating the effects of climate change by promoting sustainable land management practices. For example, the Rwenzori Mountains, shared between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, represent a crucial source of fresh water for the region. Similarly, Kenya’s Lake Turkana, as the world’s largest desert lake, plays a vital role. Legal protection of these ecosystems would guarantee a secure water supply for millions of people, strengthening the resilience of the region and its communities in the face of growing climate challenges.

Water, cooperation and sustainable development

Access to drinking water remains a major concern in Africa. Recognition of Nature’s rights to ecosystems such as the Nile, the Senegal River, Lake Chad, etc. could offer pertinent solutions to the issues of land sharing and management. For example, recognition of the Nile’s rights would foster international cooperation to meet water-related challenges and promote sustainable development. Similarly, the Lake Chad basin is under considerable pressure: recognition of Nature’s rights in this region could help strengthen initiatives and the legal framework to restore its ecosystem and benefit local communities. Finally, recognizing the rights of the Senegal River could balance agricultural needs with the preservation of river ecosystems, offering a future where equitable access to water and environmental sustainability go hand in hand.

Hands trying to collect water between their palms

Source: Freepik, 2024. Link here.

Group of Mursi people with traditional clothing and tools

Source:, 2011. Link here.

Cultural Preservation and Environmental Transformation

Africa, which is also rich in culture and tradition, has for generations maintained a deep bond with Nature. Within this cultural mosaic, many Indigenous communities, such as the San of Southern Africa and the Pygmies of Central Africa (Congo, Cameroon, Gabon), have maintained sustainable hunting and gathering practices in harmony with their environment. Recognition of the Rights of Nature represents a means of protecting these rights and cultural practices, by aligning this holistic approach with their ancestral values and guaranteeing the preservation of traditional ecological knowledge.


Ultimately, the recognition of the Rights of Nature in Africa marks a significant turning point in our relationship with the environment. It offers an invaluable opportunity to preserve biodiversity, safeguard Indigenous knowledge, mitigate the effects of climate change and promote sustainable development. Faced with the environmental challenges causing harm to African nations, adopting this new paradigm is not only a legal and ethical necessity, but also a pragmatic step towards a more harmonious coexistence with Nature. The examples presented here illustrate the transformative potential of recognizing the Rights of Nature in Africa, paving the way for a brighter environmental future on the continent and beyond.


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