Carving through equatorial East Africa, the Albertine Rift supports some of the greatest biodiversity on the planet. This colossal network of mountains, valleys, wetlands, and savannah comprises just over one percent of the African continent’s landmass, yet claims more than half of its birds, 40 percent of its mammals, and some 500 species of plant and animal found nowhere else.
In the northern sector of this geologic wonder, a craggy escarpment rolls down to a grassy plain, flanked by Lake Albert on the border between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Murchison Falls National Park, one of Africa’s natural treasures. There, on that sweeping expanse, and partly inside the park, two oil giants are making final preparations to tap into the vast reserves of crude that lie below the rift.
The discovery in 2006 of the largest onshore deposit in sub-Saharan Africa transformed this impoverished country into one of the most sought-after and contentious oil frontiers. The Ugandan government has lent its support in hopes that the Tilenga and Kingfisher projects, as the neighboring oilfields are known, will also transform the fortunes of its populace. More than half of Ugandans live in poverty and almost a third are unemployed. The project holds the possibility of 6,000 new jobs, mostly for Ugandans.
In 2019, as the scale of the oil development project took shape, the government made a paradoxical move: It adopted a groundbreaking environmental law that could protect the fragile habitat in which the oil project is centered. The law formally recognizes the rights of nature in the same ways that human rights are recognized and allows nature to be named as an injured party in litigation over “any infringement” of those rights.
By treating forests, lakes, and other ecosystems as living beings and enshrining nature’s right “to exist, persist, maintain, and regenerate,” Uganda joined a growing global movement to recognize the value of the natural world as an equal party rather than a resource to be exploited—and became the first African nation to do so.
At least 14 countries have passed measures protecting rights of nature since 2008, when Ecuador added rights-based protections to its constitution. The natural places have “rights” to sue; guardianship bodies are appointed in these nations to serve as the ecosystem’s human face during consultations and court hearings.
“This is a dramatic new framework that gives nature a voice,” says Grant Wilson, executive director of the Earth Law Center, a Colorado-based environmental group. “It is a new DNA for the legal system.”
Some countries have granted personhood to unique and venerated places, including Colombia’s Atrato River and New Zealand’s Whanganui River, worshipped by the Indigenous Maori people. In Australia this spring, the local council in Blue Mountains, a town close to Sydney, became that country’s first to embed the rights-of-nature concept into its operations. And in May, a rights-of-nature lawsuit was filed in Orange County, Florida, on behalf of several waterways under the county’s “rights of nature” law that voters approved last November. The suit argues that multiple streams and wetlands are at risk for destruction by a proposed 1,900-acre housing development.
Philippe Sands, a barrister and law professor at University College London who specializes in human rights and environmental issues, sees the movement as a “broader change of consciousness.” Rights-of-nature laws, he says, “are expressions of a recognition that we cannot always place ourselves at the center of everything.”
Oil field development continues
The oil fields are being developed on the ancestral lands of the Bagungu people, a farming and fishing community in western Uganda’s rural Buliisa district on the shores of Lake Albert. Multiple sacred natural sites are scattered across the region and the community has watched the building of the oil project with growing unease.
In April, Ugandan and Tanzanian government officials signed final agreements with the French oil multinational TotalEnergies and a Beijing-based giant called the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) to extract about 1.7 billion barrels from a 425-square-mile drilling zone that extends partially inside the national park and below a UNESCO wetland. The oil will then be pumped 900 miles through the world’s longest heated pipeline to the Indian Ocean port city of Tanga, in Tanzania. The pipeline crosses critical wildlife habitats; the port is surrounded by mangroves and coral reefs. International observers estimate the project will displace thousands of farmers. The first oil export is planned for 2025.
From the top of the rift overlooking Lake Albert, large trucks can be seen below churning up dust clouds along a new, Chinese-built highway that cuts across pristine grassland. Steamrollers flatten its surface as baboons emerge from the bush to observe the heavy-duty hubbub unfolding along the lake’s eastern shore toward the national park’s oilfields. Access roads and oil wells are already being installed in the extraction zone around the one-story, mud-brick home of Alon Kiiza, an 88-year-old Bagungu elder in the sleepy town of Buliisa.
“Drilling for oil will disturb the ecosystem,” he says. “The spirit of the land does not connect well with these machines.”
Buliisa’s oil boom has also triggered an influx of migrant workers, intensifying pressures on the landscape as demand for timber, fuelwood, and water soars.
Local political leaders, drawn in early by the promise of jobs, are alarmed. “We need development. People are poor,” says Kubalirwa Nkuba, the district council chairman. “But we don’t want a situation where there will be oil and the environment destroyed. When the oil is over, what then?”
Rights of Nature rooted in Indigenous culture
While rights of nature laws appear cutting edge, they are rooted in ancient, Indigenous thought. The world’s 370 million Indigenous peoples account for 5 percent of the global population, yet live on lands that shelter 80 percent of the planet’s biodiversity. For millennia, they have preserved habitats by understanding how, when and where to hunt, farm, and fish without depleting ecosystems, even as their intricate practices were dismissed as “pagan” or “primitive” by a colonized and rapidly industrializing world.
Activists say they can draw a direct line from the disappearance of traditional belief systems and the loss of habitat and biodiversity—and to protect the environment successfully, those marginalized Indigenous voices must be restored. In other words, human rights and nature’s rights go hand in hand; one cannot be realized without the other, says Margret Kagole, a Uganda elder from the minority Bagungu group. “Our laws can preserve these lands.”
In Africa, the effort to rehabilitate Indigenous practices has been under way for more than 40 years, when heads of state in 1981 adopted the African Charter, an international pact intended to decolonize the continent’s institutions and promote human rights.
Since then, commissions created by the charter have focused on restoring the status of Indigenous peoples, emphasizing the role that their pre-colonial governance systems played in protecting biodiversity.
“It is possible for people to revive traditions and reconnect with nature, which is vital in the context of climate change,” says Liz Hosken, director of the Gaia Foundation, which supported the campaign to encourage Uganda’s government to enact the rights-of-nature law. “But they’ve been so demonized it’s taking time for them to believe in their history again.”
Dennis Tabaro, a Ugandan environmentalist collaborating with Hosken in Buliisa, the main settlement by the Tilenga oil project, has been working to coax a “lost generation” of Indigenous elders out of the shadows to play a more influential role in shaping environmental protections. In an example of that, the district council last December passed an ordinance recognizing the Bagungu's traditional laws and their right to protect sites of natural and spiritual significance. The ruling also creates a watchdog run by officials and Indigenous elders to oversee the area’s conservation.
Legal protections not always assured
Christina Voigt, an expert in international environmental law at the University of Oslo, says that rights-of-nature laws show “promising indications that they may raise the level of protection.” But she cautions, they are “one tool in a whole toolbox of legal approaches. One does not exclude the other.”
And rights-of-nature legal action does not always win the day. In 2017, after an Indian court granted the legal status of personhood to the revered Ganges River and its main tributary, the Yamuna River, India’s Supreme Court reversed the order, saying it was legally unsustainable. In a similar case in 2020, after voters in Toledo, Ohio, approved a first-in-its-kind ballot measure to grant personhood to Lake Erie, a federal court struck it down as too vague.
The Uganda rights-of-nature law contains a clause stating that the government may choose which natural places are to be protected by the law and which are not, creating a worrisome loophole. The government is writing regulations that will guide decision-making on protections; as development of the oil fields continues apace, activists worry that the regulations may come too late.
A TotalEnergies spokesman, who the company did not wish to name, said the French oil firm had identified and mitigated the social and environmental risks in line with international standards, “to strictly limit the impact on local communities and, where possible, help to improve their quality of life,” including offering compensation to people who are displaced.
“Total is fully aware of the potential impacts on local communities,” the spokesman said, adding that “stakeholders are informed and consulted at every step of the project implementation.” Activists dispute the degree of transparency.
Uganda officials acknowledge the seeming inconsistencies in efforts to balance competing demands. “The rights-of-nature law reflects the seriousness with which the government regards nature and the lengths it will go to protect it,” says Naomi Karekaho, a spokeswoman for Uganda’s National Environment Management Authority. “This does not mean that there are no challenges. Nature definitely has its own rights. But so do people and so does development.”
Reducing poverty, Karekaho adds, “is a bigger priority for us than mitigating climate change.”
Rights of nature reflects a generational shift
Ugandan lawyers believe their best chances lie in moderating, not halting, the project—and that citing the rights-of-nature law could help. “I’m a legal realist,” says Frank Tumusiime, whose environmental nonprofit, Advocates for Natural Resources & Development, helped create that law. “The Tilenga project is a fait accompli. We should focus on the mitigation plan.”
In time, however, the real value of rights-of-nature laws may be less about the strength of their teeth in protecting the environment, and more about signaling a paradigm shift at this critical juncture for the planet.
“The law is never the means alone to a greater end. It is reflective of change, and that’s what the Ugandan law is,” says Sands, the barrister. “The real change will only come when the next generation of adjudicators have grown up in a consciousness that really integrates a more ecocentric approach. And that will take time.”