by Yali Banton-Heath

It was deeply saddening to read that prominent environmental campaigner and lawyer, Polly Higgins, sadly passed away on Sunday. Her efforts and contribution towards the global environmental struggle have been both immensely brave and intensely important, thus she and her work must not go unforgotten. 

Polly devoted her life and her profession to promoting the recognition of ecocideas a crime against humanity under international law. If enshrined, the crime of ecocide would hold nation states and large corporations legally accountable for their devastating impact on our planet, and act as a deterrent for continued environmental disregard and ecological abuse. In her own words: “A corporation’s freedom ends where ecocide begins.” It is a potentially “world-changing” legal innovation, and the type of radical and practical proposition that the environmental justice movement so badly needs if it is to be taken seriously and contribute to positive systemic change.


Polly Higgins (Image credit: screenshot of film by You and I Films)

Last week at the Extinction Rebellion occupations and activities in London, and as the demonstrations and talks continue, the term ecocide has been on the lips of many. Although it is a term that has been around for almost 50 years, appearing in certain domestic pieces of legislation across the world, but having been frustratingly rejected by the drafters of the Rome Statute back in 1996, it is a term that has increasingly made its way to the foreground of environmental and legal discourse. This is a resurgence in which Polly played an absolutely pivotal role. In 2010 she proposed that the Rome Statute be amended to include ecocide as one its crimes prosecutable in the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Since then she worked tirelessly to promote this amendment, and has focused her efforts on leaders in the global south whose nations continue to suffer disproportionately under environmental destruction and climate change. Over the years, she spread the word and her campaign gained momentum not only among academic circles, but also in political and legal spheres.

This revolutionary change in jurisprudence could serve not only to make ecocide more easily prosecutable, but also have a wider impact of reframing the way we perceive nature.

In tandem with a push for the criminalisation of ecocide, the Rights of Nature movement has gained similar impetus in recent years. It advocates for the environment to have its own rights, just like humans do, and for abuse of these rights to be therefore litigable in court. This revolutionary change in jurisprudence could serve not only to make ecocide more easily prosecutable, but also have a wider impact of reframing the way we perceive nature. Not as something which gains significance through human use or interaction, but as something which deserves preservation and respect in its own right. There are already several countries where nature has been granted its own set of legal rights. For example, the Whanganui River in New Zealand is now recognised as an autonomous legal entity, the 2008 Ecuadorian Constitution enshrines within it the ‘Right of Nature’ or ‘Pacha Mama’, and Bolivia enacted the progressive Law of the Rights of Mother Earth in 2010.

As someone who studies human rights law and is specifically interested in land rights, when I came across Polly Higgins and her work around 4 years ago her ideas became deeply influential upon my own worldview. Contemporary conflicts over land use and land ownership widely fail to acknowledge the rights of the environment itself, and ultimately decisions about that land are made at the expense of its own integrity. Polly and others’ work and ideas gave me hope for a more productive shift in legal discourse, and instilled within me inspiration for using the law as a powerful tool in environmental protection. Not only does it contribute in pragmatic terms, but it also fosters a better way of perceiving nature and the land we live on: as something that is bigger than us and cannot be reduced to relational concepts of property, resource, or commodity. To borrow a well-known native American phrase: “When the blood in your veins returns to the sea, and the earth in your bones returns to the ground, perhaps then you will remember that this land does not belong to you, it is you who belong to this land.”

As we begin to consider our options for suggesting positive tools and proactive measures for when the times comes to engage with our governments and MPs, Polly Higgins’ work would be a clever weapon of choice. Now more than ever the solutions she has promoted throughout her life are vital to our common struggle, and should be given new life through the work of campaign strategists, academics, and activist lawyers alike. Thank you Polly, for your passion, your bravery, your innovativeness, and your relentless optimism, may you inspire us all in taking our next steps towards a better future.

If you want to learn more about some of the work Polly Higgins was involved in, please see the links below:

Eradicating Ecocide

Earth Protectors 

Earth Law Centre

Featured image: Bolivian mountains (credit: Azul Flores)


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