Norfolk Native Helps Draft “Rights of Nature” Law in Panama
Veelenturf, center, with Juan Diego Vasquez’s Legal Cabinet.
By Grace Allen
Does nature have legal rights? Activists in a fast-growing global movement believe so, and thanks to a Norfolk native, Panama is poised to become just the third country in the world to recognize the Rights of Nature in its constitution.
Norfolk native Callie Veelenturf.
Callie Veelenturf is an award-winning scientist and the founder of the Leatherback Project, an organization dedicated to the study and preservation of the leatherback sea turtle, a critically endangered species. The 29-year-old conservationist is already making her mark on the world, but it was a personal experience that set her on her current path.
After reaching a settlement in a sexual harassment suit against her employer in 2019, Veelenturf found herself with time to reflect on the experience. She came to realize that what she had been through could also be applied to her conservation efforts. She had legal rights and had exercised them. But what about nature, she wondered? Why doesn’t nature have legal rights, too? As it turns out, she’s not the first person to ask that question.
In 1972, the radical idea that nature has rights was introduced via the seminal law review essay, “Should Trees Have Standing.” Under most laws, nature is considered property and as such can be damaged or destroyed by the property owner. Fifty years later, the idea that an ecosystem, plant, or animal species is entitled to legal status as a rights-bearing entity is no longer an unusual concept. Activists note that the doctrine is rooted in traditional Indigenous philosophies, which teach respect for nature by viewing humans and nature as part of the same family.
Currently in Panama studying leatherback turtle nesting grounds, Veelenturf has seen first-hand how the turtles are being illegally harvested for human consumption and trade of their parts for medicinal remedies, or to make spurs for cockfighting events. With her own experience weighing on her mind, she pondered the environmental injustices she was witnessing almost daily.
“I was trying to process my own negative experience and figuring out how to grow from it,” she said. “I did a lot of reading and learned about the Rights of Nature movement and found it fascinating. We have this anthropocentric perspective and nature simply does not have any rights within our legal system. What I saw specifically with the sea turtles made me wonder how challenging it would be to draft a Rights of Nature law here and present it. How open would the people of Panama be to this? I thought I would try.”
A colleague facilitated a meeting between Veelenturf and Senator Juan Diego Vasquez and Panama’s First Lady, Yazmin Colon de Cortizo, to propose her idea. They were supportive, so Veelenturf worked with the senator’s legal advisors and the Minister of the Environment to draft articles of the proposed law, which recognizes the rights of nature to exist, persist and regenerate. She also worked with the U.S.-based Earth Law Center, experts in advocating for the rights of nature around the world.
“They were really instrumental in making the law as strong as it is,” Veelenturf said. “I knew I didn’t have the expertise needed to flesh out a law that had all these principles in it. There are some really exciting clauses in the law that say that if there’s any doubt that a certain action might affect nature or a species, the ruling has to be in favor of nature. That makes this law just so much more enforceable.”
While there are many environmental protection laws in the U.S., they are often structured in a way that simply puts limits on destructive activities by regulating how much damage can legally occur, notes Veelenturf. The Clean Water Act, for example, exempts urban and agricultural runoff into U.S. waters.
“These laws are still allowing you to do damage,” she said. “A Rights of Nature law is actually more enforceable than other environmental laws because it always comes down to the fact that the species has rights. All you have to do is prove that the actions of the individuals or corporation are endangering the rights of the species and it becomes illegal. The species is then entitled to legal representation in a court of law by someone who will act on its behalf.”
In 2008, Ecuador became the first country to formally recognize and implement the Rights of Nature in its constitution, and Bolivia followed suit in 2010. Other countries, including the United States, have local ordinances that recognize the Rights of Nature at some level, but until now, no other country has implemented such sweeping ecological governance.
Veelenturf has been so inspired by the movement that she has started a campaign called Rights for Nature, hoping to connect and work with scientists around the world to propose similar legislation in other countries. The international initiative includes environmentalists from Guinea, Ghana, Cameroon, Uruguay, and the United States.
Local Town Pages first profiled Veelenturf in the October 2019 Norfolk Wrentham edition. The young biologist, a 2010 King Philip graduate, studied marine biology at the University of Rhode Island and then earned a master’s degree in biology at Purdue University. She is a National Geographic grant recipient and has earned the designation of National Geographic Explorer. Her quest to protect the earth’s oceans and the leatherback sea turtle has taken her to Latin America, the Caribbean, and West Africa. She has spoken three times at the United Nations. In addition to managing the Leatherback Project, the Rights for Nature campaign, and other conservation projects, Veelenturf is currently applying to PhD programs in conservation biology.
Most people agree that climate change can no longer be ignored. Veelenturf and other conservationists are at the forefront of radical action that they hope will tip the scales in favor of nature and the planet before it’s too late.
“Acknowledging the Rights of Nature in a legal sense could create a cascading system change,” said Veelenturf. “If everyone, from private citizens to governments, had to consider the rights of the natural world in all decision-making, this could be revolutionary.”