Recognising the Rights of the Reef

Frequently Asked Questions

About the Model Laws Recognising the Rights of the Reef

Follow the links below to read the draft laws. AELA has drafted new laws for each level of government in Australia:

  • A Model State Law for the Queensland Government, which recognises the Great Barrier Reef as a living entity with a right to exist, thrive and evolve and a right to a healthy climate system. The law recognises the rights of First Nations Peoples and community members to defend the rights of the Reef. It also calls for similar Federal legislation;
  • A Model Local Law – This can be used by communities and local councils to defend the rights of the Reef and assert their rights to a healthy environment. At present, Local Councils don’t create laws like these; Local Councils are subject to State laws that can override the will of local people. These draft laws propose a radically different way forward: to support greater democracy and greater custodianship of the living world, local communities need to have a greater say over how the Reef is managed and cared for;
  • An Amendment to the Australian Constitution – to recognise the rights of nature, and the rights of the Great Barrier Reef at the federal level; similar to the approach taken by Ecuador.

In all of these laws, recognising the legal rights of the Great Barrier Reef is a game-changer.

What do the Draft Laws cover?

The laws propose changes to fundamental elements of Australia’s legal system, as they:

  • Reject the idea that the GBR is human property and recognise the Reef as a living being and an entity with its own legal rights. (The Great Barrier Reef includes all its constituent ecosystems, natural communities and native species.)
  • Set out out what the rights of the Reef are.
  • Recognise the fundamental rights of First Nations Peoples to defend the Rights of the Reef, and to carry out their rights and obligations as traditional owners and custodians, to protect the Reef.
  • Prohibit actions that would violate the rights of the Great Barrier Reef.
  • Allow people to enforce the rights of the Great Barrier Reef by starting court proceedings in the name of the Great Barrier Reef.
  • Importantly, the laws would hold the Queensland Government and Federal Government accountable for any violations of the rights of the Reef.
  • Reverse the onus of proof – which means that where a person or community takes action to enforce the rights of the Reef, the new laws require the development proponents being challenged to prove that their project, activity, or development does not interfere with the rights of the Great Barrier Reef to exist, thrive, regenerate, and evolve.
  • In cases of environmental destruction – including harm caused by the exploitation of non-renewable natural resources – ensure that monetary damages derived from proceedings are used solely to restore the Reef to its prior natural state.

Frequently Asked Questions

Read more FAQs

What are rights of nature?

At present, Australia’s legal system treats the living world as human property. Our environmental protection laws are a good start, and have made some progress – but they are still operating within a system that’s geared to support endless development, resource extraction and pollution.

Rights of nature laws are designed to reflect our 21st Century understanding of life on Earth – we are part of nature, interconnected with it and we depend upon it. We don’t have a right to own it and we don’t have a right to destroy it. The living world has a RIGHT to exist, thrive and evolve – and our legal system needs to be transformed to respect this reality.

Find more information about the Rights of Nature movement globally.

What would these new laws mean for you?

For the first time in Australia, these laws would empower all citizens to protect the reef and challenge proposed and existing activities that damage the reef.

These new laws would recognise the Great Barrier Reef as a living entity with its own right to exist, thrive and regenerate; and it would recognise the fundamental rights of First Nations People to defend their ancestral land and sea country, and the rights of any concerned citizen to take legal action to defend the rights of the Reef.

By recognising the rights of the Reef, human activities will have to change to become sustainable and to be supportive of regenerative life on the Reef.

Why advocate for legal recognition of the rights of the Reef?

Our legal system has failed to protect the natural world, and has failed the Great Barrier Reef. This is not surprising, as Australia’s current laws support an economic system driven by unsustainable growth, endless resource extraction, and the idea that nature is merely human property. Our laws do not recognise the rights of local communities to stop unwanted developments, and they do not recognise the inherent rights of the non-human world to live and flourish.

AELA is working to create new conversations in Australia about the legal status of the natural world. This involves advocating for legal recognition of the rights of nature and local communities, so ordinary people can defend the rights of the natural world to exist, thrive and evolve, challenge corporate and government destruction of the natural world, and demand a healthy future built on a living economy.

Around the world, other communities, legislatures and courts are losing faith in traditional environmental law to protect the natural world. There are a growing number of jurisdictions shifting the legal status of nature from human property, to subjects of the law. This means that natural systems have their own inherent rights to exist, thrive and evolve, recognised in law, and legal actions can be taken on behalf of the ecosystems.

Examples include: the constitution of Ecuador, national legislation in Bolivia, local ordinances in the USA and recent court decisions in India which recognise the legal rights of nature; developments in New Zealand under the Treaty of Waitangi, which have seen several ecosystems granted legal personhood and in Australia, the creation of ‘environmental water managers’ in domestic law has seen legal rights allocated to environmental water flows.

A successful example of the implementation of rights of nature is the Vilcabamba River case in Ecuador. Under this case, ordinary citizens used the provisions in the Ecuadorian Constitution to speak for the river, and launch a case against a municipal government, for violating the rights of the river to exist and maintain its vital cycles. The court found in favour of the river and recognised the river’s life giving capacity and inherent right to exist. The court ordered the municipal government to restore the river flow, which it had disrupted with waste from major roadworks.

For an overview of why rights of nature laws are different from the current paradigm and how they can play a part in transforming cultural world views and the legal system, please see this page on AELA’s website:

Do Rights of Nature laws stop all human activities and development?

No, they don’t. But we do need to rethink some of our activities and limit our most destructive practices – and industrial societies need to rethink our attitude towards  what we can demand from our finite planet.

Recognizing Rights of Nature does not put an end to human activities, rather it places them in the context of a healthy relationship where our actions do not threaten the balance of the system upon which we depend. Further, these laws do not stop all development, they halt only those uses of land that interfere with the very existence and vitality of the ecosystems which depend upon them.

— Mari Margil, “Building an International Rights of Nature Movement” in M.Maloney and P.Burdon (eds) Wild Law in Practice (Routledge, 2014)

Do we need the State and Federal Governments to change the laws,
or can we create these laws through local democracy?

In today’s political climate, we can’t wait for political leaders who have failed to protect the Reef or failed to address climate change. We need to use peaceful, democratic means – such as new local laws and new local declarations and statements – to assert community and nature rights.

The proposed new local laws are designed for local communities to discuss, adapt/adopt and advocate to their local councils to implement. Only by acting together, and supporting the transformation of our legal system, will change happen.

Examples of how local communities have made laws asserting the rights of nature can be found in the USA. CELDF – the Community Environmental Legal Defence Fund helps communities assert their rights and challenge unwanted developments.

What will happen to the signed petition?

Find out what we are doing to take your petition to all levels of government, and to work to create long term law reform.