Recognizing Rights of Great Barrier Reef Could Help Defeat Destructive Coal Mine Project

Conventional environmental laws have allowed Adani’s Carmichael coal mine go forward in Australia. It’s time we changed them.

Recently, groundwater extraction permits were granted for the controversial Carmichael coal mine project in Queensland, Australia. With that approval, Adani, the Indian company proposing the mine, will likely receive its final federal permit approvals, and mining will begin apace.

photo of adani coal mine protest
Despite years of activism against the controversial Carmichael mine, which will be the largest coal mine in the Australia, Indian company Adani is expected to receive final permit approvals for the project. Photo by Julian Meehan.

For all of the dedicated activism opposing the mine, which will be the largest coal mine in the country, and despite the many reasons why the mine will be destructive for people and the planet, under the existing legal system, approval of the mine was predictable.  

Environmental laws in Australia, as in much of the world, are written to legally permit practices such as coal mining, which bring known environmental harm, rather than legally prohibit them.

In the countries where we live, Australia and the United States, as well as in countries around the world, environmental laws legalize mining. They legalize extraction of coal-seam gas. They legalize animal factory farming, industrial scale land clearing for agriculture, logging of native forests, and on and on.

Through environmental laws, governments permit and legalize the “use” of the environment — including land, water, air, plants, and species. The approval process for Adani’s mine grants legal permission to the company to use nature.  

Environmental laws are able to authorize the use and exploitation of nature, and the resulting environmental harm, because our legal systems do not recognize that nature has an inherent right to exist or to well-being. The approval of the Carmichael mine is proof of this, and the need for a fundamental reorientation of the legal system.

Recognizing the need to fundamentally change how we treat nature, the Australian Earth Laws Alliance (AELA), where co-author Michelle Maloney is the convenor, has launched a movement to recognize the legal rights of nature and ecosystems, including the Great Barrier Reef. AELA has created model local, state, and federal laws that would recognize the legal rights of the Great Barrier Reef — including rights to exist, thrive, regenerate, and restoration — and empower local communities and Indigenous custodians to protect nature.

Inspired by the local laws created by the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund in the US, where co-author Mari Margil is associate director, AELA crafted the model laws to advance the role that local and Indigenous communities need to play, as protectors of the ecosystems in which they live. 

Recognition of rights of the Reef would mean that human activities must be consistent and upholding of those rights. This recognizes that not only does the Reef have intrinsic value, but in very practical terms, we need to change our actions to ensure we are not interfering with the very existence of the Reef itself.

For the Great Barrier Reef, back-to-back bleaching events in recent years show just how vulnerable the world’s largest coral reef is to human activities. The recent decision approving permits for the Adani Carmichael mine, while unsurprising, is deeply concerning for the Reef.  The Australian Marine Conservation Council stated that the mine will put “millions of corals and ocean wildlife on the state’s iconic Great Barrier Reef at risk.”

The consequence of the status quo is crystal clear. We have environmental laws intended to protect ecosystems, such as the Great Barrier Reef, but they are undermined by other environmental laws which legalize harm of the very places we’re trying to protect. 

Today we live with this deep contradiction within our legal systems, and the results are proving severe, including accelerating species extinction, global warming, and ecosystem collapse — such as with coral reefs.

The approval of permits for Adani are just one example of this contradiction. Those organizing to oppose the mine argue that the extraction and burning of coal will accelerate climate disruption and contribute to water pollution, which are leading causes of bleaching and die-off.

Studies show that the past three years were the hottest in recorded human history, and the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Climate has warned of “the significant human influences on the Earth system as a whole.” 

Recently, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services released a report detailing how human activities are “pushing the planet towards a sixth mass species extinction.” The Reef provides habitat for millions of species and yet our legal system is allowing human activities that are known to cause direct harm to the Reef and the life it supports.

These reports, and the on-the-ground (and underwater) consequences of legal systems which fail to protect nature, point to the same problem — that humankind has a fundamentally unsustainable relationship with the natural environment. It is time to transform that relationship, from one based in exploitation and destruction, to one which recognizes our dependence on nature and our need to live harmoniously and in balance with the natural world.  

But this is not about simply changing our attitude toward nature. It means understanding that our actions are destroying the very life systems upon which we depend.  

Change begins, in part, with changing how legal systems treat nature. Thus, transforming nature from being considered a commodity, existing to serve human needs, to nature being recognized as a living entity with inherent value and rights.

This kind of change is beginning in Australia and taking hold elsewhere. In 2006, the first laws recognizing that nature has legal rights were enacted in the US. In 2008, Ecuador enshrined legal rights of nature in its national constitution. Today, laws and court decisions which change how nature is treated under the law have been passed by communities in Brazil, by First Nations tribes in the US, by the governments of Bolivia, New Zealand, and Uganda, and by courts in Colombia, Bangladesh, and India.

In 2016, Colombia’s Constitutional Court issued a decision recognizing legal rights of the Atrato River, including rights to protection and conservation. The court explained the need to change how we treat nature, and recognize that humans are “an integral part and not simply as a ruler of nature.” It spoke of the urgency to make this transformation, writing, “Now is the time to start taking the first steps towards effectively protecting the planet and its resources before it is too late or the damage is irreversible, not only for future generations but for the entire human species.”

Around the world the call for change is growing, and the urgency has never been greater.  

The existing system of law and governance which has brought us to this point cannot continue. It’s long past time that we acknowledge this and act upon it.  

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