MUMTA ITO is a lawyer and Founder of the NGO Nature’s Rights. She sees law as a vehicle for social transformation in a paradigm of restoration, reparation and healing. One of Europe’s leading advocates for nature’s rights, she is also European facilitator of the UN Harmony with Nature expert dialogues and initiator of a European Citizens Initiative to propose nature’s rights to the EU legislative agenda.
NATURE’S RIGHTS (previously Rights of Nature Europe) is a young international non-profit organization committed to establishing rights of nature in law and policy in Europe and around the world. Among its innovations is a Draft EU Directive to codify nature’s rights into European law.
In November 2017, I had an inspiring conversation with Mumta outside a cafe in South London to talk about her work in advocating for Nature’s Rights and about her own personal motivations to step forward as a lawyer on behalf of nature. What follows is the edited transcript of our conversation.
Tell me about the NGO you founded – Nature’s Rights?
We founded a charity called Nature’s Rights. There are two aspects to our work: one is transforming our relationship with nature, the other is law and policy. That is, changing the fundamental basis of a legal system that deals with nature in a way which stems from the enlightenment period – the legal construction of nature as an object in law – and shifting that perspective to nature being a subject in law with legal personality and rights. With that we campaign for laws and policies that recognise the intrinsic value of nature, that recognise nature has legal personality, and that embed our place as human beings within the web of life.
What is Nature’s Rights working on in the UK at the moment?
This project in the UK is a test project because there are different ways in which rights of nature has been progressed. To shift the fundamental basis of the way the legal system deals with nature is a big operation. People have been looking at dealing with it at (a) local level; or (b) dealing with in terms of legal personality of a river or a mountain or, in some cases, like in Ecuador and Bolivia, at (c) national level. There is also the possibility of, as we are proposing in Europe, (d) at trans-national level with the European Union.
So, there are these different movements. We were inspired by a grass-roots movement in the United States to bring in local bye-laws as a way of establishing legal precedent. As a test case, we are working with the town council of Frome to get a local bye-law in place which recognises the rights of the river and the rights of the ecosystem of the meadow.
In the UK, local authorities (particularly parish councils) are quite restricted in terms of the type of bye-law that they can make. They do not have the power to make the laws outright. They can propose laws which need to be then confirmed by central government. We are putting in a test application and we shall see what the response is. If it is successful, this could be a way of embedding these concepts within the legal system.
We are also exploring the well-being powers. Parish Councils, and other types of Councils, in the UK have quite wide powers to bring in soft laws which are for the benefit of the environment and nature.
We are also exploring setting up certain areas as Nature’s Rights zones. One may think if all of nature is interconnected, what use is it if one river has rights and the next river does not? What if this field has rights, but the field next to it is polluted? It is one ecosystem so the whole thing gets polluted anyway. Is it not an absolute nonsense?
This is not though just about how effective it is to get rights for one piece of river, or for one meadow, and how much pollution that would prevent. This is about seeding a change in the legal system that is so fundamental that it has the power to shift and transform all of our systems.
The legal construction of nature as an object goes hand-in-hand with the economic system that we have. It relies on nature being an object under the law in order for nature to be used as a resource and as natural capital and so on. It is the same with the agricultural system. We have agriculture that poisons the land because nature is treated as an object.
Our economic system, agricultural system, transport system, energy system – all of these rely on us being able to exploit nature. The related legal construction is nature as an object. We can see that this is a really archaic form of law because, if we look back at history, this type of legal construction was present in slavery, in the treatment of women under the law, in the treatment of indigenous people. It has always been present alongside exploitation. It has never been about protection. We are therefore seeing just the vestiges of a very archaic system. We need to bring the law up to date along with all of our systems.
You mentioned that you are being approached by students?
Yes, young people sense a real feeling of excitement. They can see that the systems we have in our society don’t make sense anymore. They are concerned that we are depleting nature to the extent that it is threatening our own existence. They deeply want to be connected to nature. They see the logic that we do not just live in an environment, we live in an interconnected community of life, of living beings. A tree is not just an object, it is not just wood, it is not just a resource. A tree is a living being that has a right to its own existence. This needs to be acknowledged in our jurisprudence.
I feel that young lawyers really want to wake up. They want to do something noble and they want to be able to use their skills to transform the law and bring about social change. I really see law as a vehicle for social transformation and this is what keeps me on this journey.
I can see how our inner transformation as lawyers, for example, engaging in contemplative practices, can help us understand how the law needs to change to recognise nature’s rights.
Nature cannot have its rights on the outside if it does not have its rights within. The Nature’s Rights movement requires an inner transformation to be the kind of lawyer that can approach law from a place of interconnection, with the attitude of being a guardian for future generations. It requires strength of character. I missed this in my education as a lawyer. It requires a different kind of education, and a different kind of strength.
Our legal education system is missing something. It is missing the personal aspect. By young lawyers doing a different kind of training where they get in touch with their own being, in touch with nature, in touch with their inter-connectedness with all life, there is greater potential for a person to be able to be a force for real change in the world.
What is your own personal connection with Nature in your work?
I have felt deeply connected with nature my whole life. From the time I was a child, the flowers were my friends. I used to feel deep pain when I would see a vase of flowers. The flowers had been cut! I wondered why anyone would do that when they are so beautiful outside. When I walk through a woods, I feel my entire being vibrating with life. I love it, you know, the leaves caressing my face. It has never made sense to me that living beings are treated as objects.
I would say that my connection with nature became more distant when I was working as a lawyer in the city. Being in an urban environment, and working in an environment that was primarily based on rational thinking, started to disconnect me from my intuitive self. I did go through a period of feeling disconnected. What brought me back was a strong meditation practice. I found that, even in an urban environment, even doing a job that was so left-brain orientated, a strong meditation practice could connect me to the entire cosmos, could connect me to the source of life, and through that, I never really lost it.