The Legal Struggle For Rights of Nature in the United States

Univ. of Wisconsin Legal Studies Research Paper No. 1747

2022 Wisconsin Law Review 133 (2022)

31 Pages Posted: 15 Apr 2022

Date Written: April 15, 2022


This Article analyzes the rise and persistence of the U.S.-based nature rights movement and its engagement with social movements in the Global South and with Indigenous ideas. The story told here of the U.S. nature rights movement is also significant because it reveals dynamics about the circulation of legal ideas across borders and legal traditions. Scholars have argued that, in the transnational flow of legal ideas, states in developing regions like Latin America act as sites of reception of transnational theories of law rather than sites of production. Legal actors based in the periphery have the role of receiving canonical theories, doctrine, and institutions of law developed in and for the North and adapting them to local experience and politics. The causes of this lopsided exchange are both material and cultural. Northern scholars have more funding and greater access to knowledge, as well as a greater ability to export their ideas. They also enjoy more prestige or symbolic capital. To counterbalance these dynamics, some scholars have promoted the idea of the South as an underutilized source of innovative intellectual production. This scholarship highlights ways in which ideas from the Global South can exert influence in the North and how Indigenous legal ideas can find expression in the national legal system and beyond—a process sometimes referred to as “interlegality in reverse.” Similarly, in scholarship on climate change in particular, the idea that the West can learn from Indigenous systems of knowledge has recently been given much weight.

This Article contributes to these debates. It shows a path by which legal ideas developed in the periphery can influence and nourish U.S. social movements and even local laws. Part I introduces the origins of the global rights of nature movement, with emphasis on several sources: U.S. Indian tribes; U.S. NGOs; and Latin American laws and social movements. Part II shows how the movement in the United States has persisted by shifting toward more aspirational and symbolic uses of law, by redefining itself as part of a transnational movement, and by turning toward engagement with Indigenous peoples and ideas. Part III presents the implications of this case study for our thinking about the symbolic use of law and about how legal ideas are deployed and travel—between the periphery and core and between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples—in a time of perceived environmental crisis

Keywords: Nature Rights, Global Rights, Global South, Indigenous Laws, Environmental Law, interlegality, climate change

Suggested Citation

Huneeus, Alexandra Valeria, The Legal Struggle For Rights of Nature in the United States (April 15, 2022). Univ. of Wisconsin Legal Studies Research Paper No. 1747, 2022 Wisconsin Law Review 133 (2022), Available at SSRN:

Alexandra Valeria Huneeus (Contact Author)

University of Wisconsin Law School ( email )

975 Bascom Mall
Madison, WI 53706
United States

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