Rights of Nature on the Rough Grounds

By Daniel Franklin E. Pilario, CM

The Rough Grounds as Symbolic Location

I am a professor of theology. I teach during the weekdays, check papers, write articles for publication, and do administrative tasks. But on weekends, I help my Vincentian confreres in a small parish in Payatas where the biggest garbage dump in Manila is located.[1] No actual census has been done in Payatas but estimates give you around forty thousand people living around a 16-hectare dumpsite facility. There are around ten thousand people working in shifts in the dumpsite facility. In an ordinary day, for instance, a scavenger goes home with $7-10 dollars in his pocket. When the Vincentians came here 25 years ago, life was really hard: roads were not paved; it was mud all over; the odor of the stinking garbage penetrates your skin, millions of flies swarm all over the place, and the children get lung and intestinal diseases.

The situation in Payatas is a total contrast to the life of the richer sections of the megapolis. While people fill up the malls and big restaurants, people eat from the leftover food in the garbage in Payatas. We do not have garbage segregation machines. It is the waste pickers (“scavengers”) themselves who segregate and sell them to get food on their tables. Three years ago, the garbage company decided to expand the heap. Our chapel where we celebrate Sunday Masses had to go and the hundreds of shanties around it. People were forced to leave in order to give way to the garbage. They have also become “waste of capital”, to borrow a phrase from the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman.

I start this article from this symbolic location because it is paradigmatic of two crucial concepts in the ecological reflections in our times: “environmental justice” and “ecological justice”. Nicholas Low and Brendan Gleeson states that “the struggle for justice as it is shaped by the politics of the environment has two relational aspects: the justice of the distribution of environments among peoples, and the justice of the relations between humans and the rest of the natural world. We term these aspects of justice: environmental justice and ecological justice. They are really two aspects of the same relationship.”[2] Payatas is a glaring symbol of inequality on both grounds – on environmental justice because its people live on the waste of other people; on ecological justice because ecological balance is blatantly neglected in favor of humans to the detriment of natural entities. For not known to many, Payatas where all human waste of Manila is dumped is just one or two kilometers away from La Mesa dam – the source of potable water for the whole Metro Manila. The leachate mixes with the ground water table, destroying not only humans who depend on it for life, but also the water supply itself and its existence.

Beyond environmental justice, ecological justice refers to this equally crucial relationship. It is not only humans who are disadvantaged. “Nature” which has also has its right to flourish has been endangered due to society’s anthropocentric direction. This brings me to the question of the “rights of nature”.

Locating the Rights of Nature Discourse

The Rights of Nature discourse is a late comer in the human rights tradition. It is well-known that the liberal tradition of human rights has four generations:[3](a) civil and political rights which can be traced back to the 18th century in order to protect the individual from State interference; (b) social, economic and cultural rights which was a response to poverty and inequality brought about by the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century; (c) collective rights during the post-colonial period in the 20th century – rights of peoples against colonialism; of indigenous peoples against development, of Third World people against lop-sided economic policies; (d) environmental rights and rights of nature which only appeared in the 21st century. One can officially trace the last phase (rights of nature discourse) in the Harmony with Nature Reports from 2009-2019.[4]

The key to understanding the right of nature is the notion of “property”. The American ecologist, Aldo Leopold, writes: “When God-like Odysseus returned from the wars in Troy, he hanged all on one rope a dozen slave-girls of his household whom he suspected of misbehavior during his absence. This hanging involved no question of propriety. The girls were property. The disposal of property was then, as now, a matter of expediency, not of right and wrong.”[5]When women ceases to be considered property, it became immoral to dispose of them. The indigenous peoples, blacks, migrants, gays and lesbians have to wait a bit longer in theory but more so in practice. In our times, nature is still considered a property, thus, continues to be disposed, used and abused.

Rights of nature goes at the heart of this matter – the ethical position of our care for the environment. If we kill someone, we will go to jail. But if we destroy a mountain in mining activities or dump industrial waste in the ocean, nothing happens to us. On the contrary, we become rich. To emphasize moral accountability, we need to insist on nature’s rights. Thomas Berry, the well-known eco-theologian, emphasize on the need to recognize these rights: “Every being has rights to be recognized and revered. Trees have tree rights, insects have insect rights, rivers have river rights, mountains have mountain rights. So too with the entire range of beings throughout the universe. All rights are limited and relative.”[6]

Rather than treating nature as property, rights of nature discourse recognizes that all natural entities have the right to exist, to preserve its being, and to regenerate their own vital cycles. Human beings thus are morally accountable to them, as they have the responsibility to uphold these rights in behalf of the other members of the Earth community.

Theology of Stewardship and its Discontents

This spells the difference between environmental justice and ecological justice we mentioned earlier. Environmental justice was already a concern of the UN Brundtland Report in 1987.[7]As international multi-stakeholders analysis, it talks about “sustainable development” that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”[8]This report served as the groundwork for Rio Declaration of 1992 and other UN Statements up to Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals. But the notion of sustainable development is aimed at sustaining human beings, their present survival and future existence. The earth’s resources, the organization of human societies, and whatever progress and development it attains, are all directed towards the survival of the human person. But “nature” is still the property that it once was and will be.

Corollary to the view of environmental justice present in ecological theology is the stewardship model of the relationship between humans and their environment. From the “dominion model” which was once a predominant hermeneutical-exegetical frame of Gen. 1: 26 –28, the Christian view of creation moved into the concept of “stewardship.”[9] It acknowledges that the Earth is God’s gift to all. The call is “to till and keep it” (Gen. 2: 15). Humble service – not arrogant domination – characterizes the attitude of the steward to that which is given into his or her care. As stewards, we need to examine our habits of consumption, the way we use our resources – because we owe its conservation for the future generation.[10]

However, the stewardship model has also been criticized as too managerial, hierarchical and androcentric with God acting like a patriarch.[11]A parallel critique is the “absentee landlord” metaphor which comes from Matthew Fox who argues that God is the absentee landlord and humans are “serfs” who, without freedom and spontaneity, are accountable to the boss. The “landlord” or the “absolutist God” outside creation lends itself to hierarchical relationality and, ultimately, to a decidedly anthropocentric paradigm. If you are a steward, you also decide on how to dispose of other ‘things’ – living or non-living – for one’s use and advantage. You can be very responsible but still the rest of creation is seen as disposable. The dominant worldview is still utility and function of property.

Rights of Nature and the Relations of Reciprocity

Beyond environmental justice and its stewardship theology, the rights of nature argues for ecological justice and relations of reciprocity between humans and nature. If each member of the Earth community has rights, then these rights need mutual respect. This is a big leap from the emphasis on social justice (human rights) to environmental justice to ecological justice (rights of nature). If each individual and collective is entitled to enjoy the fullness of each own life form, therefore, to each his/her/its due.

Normal Habel and his ecological-theological project offered six hermeneutic principles in this reciprocal relations between humans and the environment: (a) principle of intrinsic worth; (b) principle of connectedness; (c) principle of voice; (d) principle of purpose; (e) principle of purpose; (f) principle of mutual custodianship; (g) principle of resistance.[12]

If nature has rights, it needs to be respected – of its intrinsic worth beyond its utility for humans; of its intrinsic connection with other Earthly beings; of its voice to cry for injustice if it is violated; of its purpose in the overall cosmic design in harmony with the rest of creation; of its own capacity to also care for humans and vice-versa; of its right to resist and struggle for justice when it suffers from human violation.


To end, let me go back to Payatas. In July 10, 2000, due to heavy rains, sheer weight of dumped garbage, careless management of the heap, the mountain of garbage collapsed on small shanties around it killing more than 1000 people who were working and living there. Half of the casualties were recovered; the other bodies were still buried under the garbage until today. When we do not listen to nature, nature speaks back with a “bang”. We humans better listen. I do not like to wait for the time when the La Mesa dam water table itself will begin to speak out and cry.

As Pope Francis once said: “God always forgives; we humans forgive sometimes; but nature never forgives. If you give her a slap, she will give you one.”[13]

Daniel Franklin E. Pilario, CM
St Vincent SchoolofTheology - Adamson University


[1] Cf. D. F. Pilario, “Payatas, De Megavuilnisbelt van Manila,” Streven (June 2009): 555-559.

[2] Nicholas Low and Brendan Gleeson, Justice, Society and Nature: An Exploration of Political Ecology (London: Routledge,1988), 2.

[3] The original “three generations” was first proposed by the Czech jurist Karel Vasak at the International Institute of Human Rights in Strasbourg in 1979.

[4] UN Harmony of Nature Reports in http://www.harmonywithnatureun.org/

[5] Aldo Leopold, “The Land Ethic,” in A Sand County Almanac (1966), 671.

[6] Thomas Berry, Our Great Work: Our Way into the Future

[7] World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987). See also in https://sswm.info/sites/default/files/reference_attachments/UN%20WCED%201987%20Brundtland%20Report.pdf

[8] Ibid., Chapter 2, No. 1, 54.

[9] Jennifer Welchman, “A Defense of Environmental Stewardship,” Environmental Values 21, No. 3 (August 2012): 297–316.

[10] See, for instance, Nelson Boch, “An Eco-theology: Toward a Spirituality of Creation and Eco-justice,” (December 2013): 433–446.

[11] R. J. Barry, ed., Environmental Stewardship: Critical Perspectives, Past and Present (London: T. & T. Clark International, 2006).

[12] Norman Habel, “The Challenge of Eco-justice Readings for Christian Theology,” Pacifica 13 (June 2000): 125-141. For other alternatives, see also Tina Dykesteen Nilsen, Anna Rebecca Solevåg, “Expanding Ecological Hermeneutics: The Case for Ecolonialism,”Journal of Biblical Literature 135, Number 4 (2016): 665-683.

[13] Pope Francis, “Press Conference on a flight from Sri Lanka to the Philippines,” January 15, 2015, in https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2015/09/120150920-pope-francis-environment-climate-quotes/