On the rights of peatlands

Peat-Fest is an annual festival dedicated to the discussion of issues surrounding peatlands. Two of the festival’s organisers, Bethany Copsey and Ireen van Dolderen, reflect on this year’s event, which focused on the rights of peatlands.

The topic of exploration for this year’s annual Peat-Fest gathering, hosted by the youth-led peatland collective RE-PEAT, was rights of peatlands. During the interdisciplinary six-day long online conference, we asked ourselves the following overarching questions: What would it mean for peatlands to have rights? In which circumstances are the rights of nature a fitting framework for change and how can we shape this tool in a way that centres local peoples and their cultures? And, how can we – as RE-PEAT – best direct our energy in the struggle for peatland justice?

Before we get to those questions, let’s unpack a little. We should start by saying that as a group, we have come away from Peat-Fest with varied views on this topic. What follows is the subjective take of two of the members of our team (Bethany and Ireen) on what the rights of peatlands can mean, as informed by the rest of RE-PEAT, the wonderful array of speakers and all of those who have been working on topics surrounding rights, justice, the natural world, and the communities who steward it.

When it comes to rights of nature, there is a spectrum of opinions, ranging from those in favour and actively working towards and advocating for these legal frameworks, to those who are not in favour and advocate for other forms of justice-making. Yet what’s become clear is not whether nature should or should not have rights, but how those rights are created and constructed – the emphasis on the process rather than the outcome.

The rights of nature

In the session, ‘Rights, Nature and Society’, Radha D’Souza introduced us to the four components of rights: substance, subject, basis and purpose. This subject element is what the Rights of Nature movement has been working on over recent decades: imagining and realising a new era for rights, where rights are not limited to people and corporations, but expanded to the natural world.

There are strong arguments for using the rights of nature framework in the context of peatlands, both from a philosophical and practical perspective. Firstly, by granting peatlands legal status – at least within the western legal framework – we are taking a step towards a more ecocentric worldview. It is a means of bridging the human-nature binary which is deeply ingrained in our current society. This dichotomy facilitates the commodification of the natural world, and the consequences of that are evident all around us (deforestation, loss of biodiversity, pollution, climate collapse). Envisioning and then implementing a different relationality to the natural world in the law can assist us in rebuilding a symbiotic relationship with the natural world.

Additionally, rights of nature policy is a much needed upgrade to current environmental law. In multiple sessions, including those from Youth GARN and Mari Margil from the Centre for Democratic and Environmental Rights, it was made clear that much environmental law merely puts boundaries on how far destruction is allowed to go, rather than prioritising the health and regenerativity of the ecosystem.

Ecosystems are portrayed as resources for us to sustain, rather than valuable, complex systems to steward and respect. As such, traditional peatland protection bills would define what types of peatlands are allowed to be drained and extracted and to what extent. Contrastingly, a rights of peatlands bill, in theory, would centralise the plurality of values of peatlands (climatological, ecological, spiritual, recreational); the protection of which should be central in high-level decision making.

Lastly, the court is a tremendously important place where stakeholders get to execute their power. At the moment, decisions concerning the natural world are made in this court, without the natural world being represented as a stakeholder. Including the ecosystem in question as a formal stakeholder could alter the outcome of environmental legal cases.

Alongside strong arguments made in favour of rights of nature, we heard from many speakers who expressed various concerns, hesitations and counterarguments to this tool and the underlying notions. Many of these relate to whether the rights of nature movement is truly radical, whether indigenous people are actually centred in discussions, and whether reclaiming rights actually alters our relationship with the natural world. Additionally, questions were brought up surrounding the failure of rights to capture the multitude of ways of knowing and exchanging knowledge across the world. Khairani Barokka, in the session ‘Rooted Survival’ also challenged us to assess whether the search for and drive to know these cosmologies is inherently extractive.

Key questions

Before deciding on working within a rights-based framework or applying rights of nature legislation, it seems to us that there is a set of questions we need to ask ourselves. These include whether the rights of nature, as a tool, is fit to tackle the root causes of our current separation from the natural world. And if not, what tools would be more appropriate?

Is it possible to use the same tools that created a division between humans and the natural world to solve it? How can we become a relative to peatlands? How can we understand the path towards justice as a continual and ongoing process? How can this be centred in the rights-framework? How can we create the language through which we can better talk about the future we wish to see? And how can we create space for that which cannot be quantifiable on paper, but is embodied in reality?

The depth of discussion, the complex issues raised, and the multitude of visions for the future mean we’ll all be digesting these questions for quite some time. But for now, let’s return to our initial wonderings and see what we can conclude, or at least address within these questions.

First, what would it mean for peatlands to have rights? The short answer is that it depends (see next question). However, we can think about rights for peatlands indicating broader protection than is currently the case, with more ecocentric decision-making and less possibility for extractive practices. It could also be part of the process of moving towards more symbiotic relationships with peatlands.

Second, in which circumstances is the rights of nature a fitting tool and how can we create this tool in a way that is sensitive to the local people and cultures in the landscape? We came away from Peat-Fest understanding rights of nature as a potentially very potent tool, and one that, like everything really, depends on who is using it, where it is being used, what the process of creating the bill was, and what alternative modes of action may exist. It also depends on who and what forms of knowledge are being centred and how it is being framed, e.g. does it work along principles of decoloniality?

The struggle for peatland justice

The space we were able to create at Peat-Fest – a space of creative, collective learning – was really special. There is a clear need for these spaces to continue to be held as we move towards peatland justice. This is a process we understand to be constantly ongoing, and one in which we want to continue to emphasise the importance of the process rather than the end goal.

We want to create the circumstances for nuanced insights, interdisciplinary stories and community-based learnings. We’ll continue to be directing our energy towards exploring tools that get to the root causes of our separation from nature and each other, and will be conducting more inquiry and reflection on how and what this looks like as we move forward.

We need to rediscover our relationship with the natural world through new narratives and research methods, listening to indigenous communities, and deep cultural and personal work. We would love to be a part of contributing to that in whatever ways we can.

Ultimately, we’re not legal experts (yet!), so in the short term we are focusing our energies on exploring questions around language, community rights, youth engagement, and bringing an imaginative, creative approach as well as a keen ear to each of these topics.

We found that Peat-Fest brought up, in many ways, more questions than answers, both on the topics of Rights of Peatlands and Rights of Nature, and more broadly on our role as RE-PEAT. We’ll be picking up on these threads over the next few months and are excited to continue these conversations.


Bethany Copsey is co-founder and current member of RE-PEAT, and a soil science student based in Denmark.

Ireen van Dolderen is a member of RE-PEAT, climate justice organiser, and medical biotechnology student based in Stockholm.