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The Rhythm of South Africa Holds Rights of Nature

by Robin Milam

UN Climate Change Conference COP17 – Durban, South Africa
November-December 2011

The rhythm of South Africa is deep, sweet, rich, soulful. It is one of joy and dignity.

Arriving in Durban I was continually greeted with friendly offers of assistance. Our requests for directions usually meant that a local was about to walk with us happily talking and laughing until we could see our destination. At one point I actually asked the volunteers at the UN COP17 Climate Change Conference if they had been given happiness training in preparation for the conference. That question resulted in laughter and assurances of “No – we are happy people. We have beautiful sunshine in Durban, you are here, how can we not be happy?”

The latest UN Climate Change Conference (COP17) was held in Durban, South Africa earlier this month. I attended with colleagues from around the world who are advocating for Rights of Nature as a positive alternative to the compromises coming out of the COP negotiations. We are a diverse grassroots group representing the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature and other aligned organizations.

The RoN Group 

Our message is clear and was presented to a wide audience:

Our current economic system is an environmental apartheid. Our current system treats nature as property to be bought, sold and consumed. We are treating nature as our slave. The rules of the game are written against us. The time is NOW to rewrite the rules recognizing that the ecosystems that sustain us have the right to exist, replenish, and thrive.

We need a cultural transformation of our relationship with nature to recognize that we are part of her ecosystem. We need to recognize that Nature has legal rights in our governance systems. Imagine the difference if culturally we are standing in a place of honoring the rights if nature versus dominion and exploitation when we are making decisions related to sustainable development.

 Day of Action

The final negotiations from COP 17 came some 30 hours after the scheduled end of the conference. Unconscionably, the final COP17 agreements are projected to leave our planet on track for warming 3 – 4 degrees Celsius (5.4 – 7.2 F) by the end of this century; and Africa is heating up at an even faster rate.

The hope for Africa, for our planet, is rising from outside the UN and corporate states. Outside – and interrupting the inside negotiations – rallies led by young emerging leaders demanded that politicians and world leaders listen to the people. Six Greenpeace activists were arrested and deported for attempting to hang a banner with that message from a building. In the December 3 Day of Action, 8,000 people from around the world marched the streets of Durban chanting and signing earth freedom songs to familiar African rhythms. Above our heads, we bounced 4-foot diameter beach balls emblazoned with Earth Rights Now! In 5 languages.


In the weeks leading up to Durban COP17, the Climate Train organized by artists and activists left Cape Town winding its way through South Africa to Durban. Stopping in townships and cities along the way, organizers presented the draft People’s Charter for Africa.  Written in the spirit of the 1950’s Freedom Charter which imagined a post-apartheid world, the Peoples Charter embraces at its core the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth and calls for recognition of Rights of Nature. Around South Africa and in Durban, people crafted compelling responses to the Peoples’ Charter through art, music and poetry. I was deeply moved by Mbali Vilakavi’s “Is there a Xhosa Word for Climate Change?”

The rhythmic joy and dignity of Africa resonates with me as I return home. I share a deeper confidence that our hope truly is in a new paradigm of relating to Mother Earth and each other. intuitively it seems obvious that Nature has Rights. Now IS the time to recognize in our hearts and in our systems of governance that Nature does have Rights!

Join us by signing our petition in support of Rights of Nature here

For more information on Rights of Nature at COP17 visit Rights of Nature Advocates at COP17.