Media Releases

Media release – August 16th, 2018

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Our legal system must change
to recognise the rights of the Great Barrier Reef

Campaign kicks off to push for the legal rights of nature in Australia


The escalating threats to the Great Barrier Reef are a failure of Australia’s legal system, according to a growing global movement pushing for the recognition of the ‘Rights of Nature’.

Ecuador’s Vilcabamba River, New Zealand’s Taranaki Mountain and Colombia’s Atrato River now have legal rights and around the world, the legal status of nature is changing in constitutions, legislation and court cases.

It’s time to recognise the legal rights of the Great Barrier Reef.

“The Great Barrier Reef has the right to exist – this is a moral reality.  Now we need to make it a legal reality too,” said Dr Michelle Maloney, Convenor of the Australian Earth Laws Alliance. “Australia’s legal system – like most western legal systems – treats nature as human property, as an endless “resource”; but that’s led us down a path of deadly environmental destruction.  It’s time to transform our legal system so that balance is restored, and healthy human economies are managed within the capacity of the living world on which we all depend. A rights of nature approach says ‘where life exists, rights exist’. And here in Australia, we’re starting with Rights of Nature laws for the Reef.”

“Despite extensive efforts by First Nations Peoples, scientists and environmental protection groups, our current laws have not stopped the key known threats to the Great Barrier Reef. They have not stopped runaway climate change, new coal mines, excessive land clearing or land based marine pollution,” said Dr Maloney. “Time and time again, we see the legal rights of corporations take priority over the legal rights of local communities and the living world.  This has to change, or we’re going to economically-grow ourselves to death.”

“We need radically different laws that protect the rights of the living world to exist, thrive and evolve.  And we need laws that enable communities to defend the rights of nature,” she said.

The growing trend to recognise the legal rights of nature is happening in different places, in different ways.  In 2008, Ecuador recognised the rights of nature in its constitution, and that’s led to more than a dozen successful cases enforcing the rights of nature, including recognition of the rights of the Vilcabamba River.  In New Zealand, the Whanganui River, Urewera Forest and Taranaki Mountain now have ‘legal personhood’ rights which recognises them as living entities and subjects under law.  These laws arose out of compensation agreements negotiated between Maori people and the NZ Government, under the Treaty of Waitangi.  In 2017, court cases in India and Colombia recognised the legal rights of rivers, glaciers, mountains and entire bioregions.

What might these laws look like in Australia? As part of the Rights of the Reef campaign, AELA’s lawyers have drafted legislation that would recognise the rights of the Great Barrier Reef in Australian law. The draft laws cover all three levels of Australian Government and, should the campaign be successful, would signal a radical new way of thinking about nature not as human property, but as a living entity with inherent rights, the same way that human rights apply to human beings.

“We can’t just tweak our current laws and hope they’ll work.  We need to create a new legal paradigm. Communities deserve a legal system which allows them to care for and actually defend nature’s inherent rights. Communities also deserve laws that protect their rights to a healthy future built on a living economy,” said Dr Maloney. “Our draft laws show how rights of nature can be enshrined in State legislation, the Federal Constitution and how we can change local government laws to be dramatically different too.  AELA’s draft laws do three things: they recognise the rights of nature, they recognise the rights of First Nations People to defend their ancestral lands and they recognise the rights of local communities to have a say over how their local regions are managed and protected. This is a different way of supporting democracy in Australia, but it’s fair and it’s doable.”

The Australian Earth Laws Alliance will be presenting the rights of nature legislation to the Queensland Government, with an anticipated 5,000+ petition signatures.

Supporters are encouraged to learn more about the growing rights of nature movement by visiting or by attending the Peoples Tribunal for the Rights of Nature held on Saturday 27 October 2018 in the Banco Court, QE II Courts of Law, Brisbane.

For further queries or to request an interview, contact Dr Michelle Maloney, Convenor for the Australian Earth Laws Alliance and Australian Centre for the Rights of Nature –

Download the media release (PDF)