The Forgotten Human Right


Do children — do all of us — have a right to meaningful connection to the natural world? Annelies Henstra, a Dutch human rights attorney, thinks so. She calls it the “forgotten human right.”

In the March 2009 issue of Orion Magazine, and then in a more detailed chapter in “The Nature Principle,” I sketched out a case for that right; not as legal argument, but as moral stance. And I emphasized that this birthright is accompanied by a responsibility to protect and care for the natural world.

That idea had already begun to take root as part of the children and nature movement. In 2007, California adopted the first statewide children’s outdoor bill of rights, followed by similar symbolic statements in other states, including Florida, Maryland, North Carolina, Kansas, and most recently Wisconsin. Cities and regions around the country have embraced similar declarations.

Now the concept is spreading internationally.

Henstra, with Thomas van Slobbe, one of the Netherland’s most prominent conservationists and director of the wAarde Foundation, have launched The Child’s Right to Nature Initiative. Their goal is to enshrine the right to nature in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) or other relevant UN documents.

As Henstra points out, this “relatively new concept” is not currently recognized as a specific right in the CRC, nor in any other UN human rights treaty. Yet, it fits the purpose of the CRC, “which is to ensure a healthy development of children.” The only other UN document that hints at this right is the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, but that focuses more on the human right to a healthy environment.

This is a subtle but important distinction. The environmental justice movement has made an effective case that people who live in economically depressed neighborhoods and regions are the most vulnerable to toxic dumps, and that all people have a right to clean air, soil and water. But what about the intrinsic, natural benefits of nature to human health, wellbeing, and cognitive and spiritual development?

In November, Tony King, head of policy for the Scottish Wildlife Trust, wrote in an editorial for the British newspaper The Guardian, “When people talk of human rights in the context of nature conservation, they often mean protecting the rights of people in the non-industrial world to make use of the obvious things nature provides, such as firewood, food and traditional remedies.” But natural habitat offers even more than that.

King cited the “growing and compelling body of evidence that regular and ready access to a wildlife-rich environment is essential for children’s health and wellbeing.” As a result, governments can and should articulate that “every child and young person has the right to grow up and live in a high-quality, wildlife-rich environment with ready access to the physical and mental health benefits, developmental advantages and play opportunities it affords.”

To move in this direction is both moral and practical. In a recent e-mail, King elaborated: “The position I am taking is a hybrid moral/utilitarian one (perhaps moral-plus would be a better way of putting it). There is a government focus of preventative spend[ing]… I am working to raise the importance of environmental and biodiversity investment in this context.”

Henstra and Van Slobbe plan to press ahead with their international campaign with the support of The International Union for Conservation of Nature‚ National Committee of the Netherlands and other organizations, says Henstra.

King wants his country to do more, too. He cautions that all “forty-three rights recognized by the (CRC) are important, and some clearly more fundamental than others; a number of countries struggle to ensure that even some of the more basic rights are recognized and some actively obstruct them.” But, he adds, “Nature is good for people: Let’s recognize the right of every child to live and grow up in a wildlife-rich world.”

Rather than becoming mired in legalisms, the debate about this forgotten human right should take place first at the cultural level — in our schools, places of worship, living rooms and neighborhoods. This is a moral and utilitarian conversation worth having, one that illuminates the interdependent issues of our time: the conservation of nature and the preservation of our fundamental humanity.

About The Author Richard Louv is chairman emeritus of The Children & Nature Network, where this essay first appeared. The Children & Nature Network, an organization supporting the international movement to connect children, their families and their communities to the natural world. Richard is the author of nine books, including “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder” and “The Nature Principle.” His newest book, “Vitamin N,” offers 500 ways to build a nature-rich life. In 2008, he was awarded the Audubon Medal. He speaks frequently around the country and internationally.

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