Photo of Studenica River courtesy of Mihailo Grbic via Wikimedia Commons.

Press Release | Groups Seek Fundamental Legal Rights for Serbia's Wild Rivers and Ecosystems

Friday, April 27, 2018



Grant Wilson (, +1-510-566-1063) 
Zoe Lujic (
Monti Aguirre (, +1-707-591-1220)  

Photo of Studenica River.
Photo of Studenica River.
Photo courtesy of Mihailo Grbic via Wikimedia Commons.

New York, NY (April 26, 2018)—Today, a coalition of organizations launch a campaign to establish rights of nature in Serbia. The goal is to permanently protect sensitive Balkan ecosystems, including from threats of enormous pesticide use and a flurry of dam construction. The campaign will build upon legal victories in New Zealand and Colombia that established rights for rivers in 2017, as well as the growing global movement to recognize legal rights for nature.

“Giving legal rights to nature, including rivers, challenges the flawed notion that nature is mere property for human exploitation,” said Grant Wilson, Directing Attorney at Earth Law Center. “We are creating a new ‘operating system’ for our environmental laws based on equal rights for all life on Earth.”

The Balkans region, known as the “Blue Heart of Europe” for its world-class waterways, is home to the continent’s last free-flowing rivers. But these rivers are at risk from a frenzy of dam building. In Serbia alone, some 800 dams are planned. Many of these are small hydropower dams, which still devastate river ecosystems akin to large dams and are often built in areas of vast biological diversity. As one example, small hydropower plants built in and around Serbia’s Kopaonik National Park have fragmented rivers and harmed biodiversity, and many more such dams are planned. 

In Serbia, advocates will utilize the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Rivers, drafted by civil society leaders worldwide, as a basis for framing a national law that recognizes the rights of wild Balkan rivers, including a legal right of rivers to flow. The Declaration intends to serve as a blueprint for rights of rivers laws across the globe, with the hope that all rivers will one day be recognized as rights-bearing entities.

“We now know that when we dam rivers, we dam ourselves. And when we pollute rivers, we pollute ourselves,” said Monti Aguirre, the Latin America Program Coordinator for International Rivers. “We must work together to protect these vital ecosystems not only for people, but also for the restoration of biodiversity that rivers deserve. The time to grant rights to rivers is now.”

Beyond rivers, the campaign also seeks to give legal rights to Serbia’s natural ecosystems, with a focus on ending the use of toxic pesticides. These inalienable rights would include a right to native biodiversity and a right to be free from pollution, amongst others. Pesticides poison Serbia’s soil and water. For example, a study of the Danube River in Serbia identified 38 different pesticides.

Toxic pesticide use in Serbia also devastates wildlife, especially birds. One victim is the white-tailed eagle, which has only 120 nesting pairs left in Serbia. In 2014 alone, nine white-tailed eagles died from eating toxic bait intended for other animals. This is almost double the amount estimated to reach sexual maturity in Serbia in one year. In some cases, white-tailed eagles are poisoned by the pesticide carbofuran, a single grain of which can kill a bird. While Serbia’s government has passed laws ostensibly banning or regulating such toxic pesticides, they are still widely used. 

“We must recognize the fundamental rights of nature to exist, be free from harm, and to thrive,” remarked Zoe Lujic, Founder of Earth Thrive. “Although there are notable efforts in Europe to halt the ecocidal effects of pesticides, in the Balkans, the situation is still dire. We need to further evolve how we relate to our natural environment, and this initiative is a big step in the right direction.”

By establishing legal rights for nature, the Serbian government would have to ensure adequate funding, enforcement, and oversight of pesticide use to guarantee ecosystem health as a right. It would also be required to promote sustainable alternatives, including organic farming techniques that uphold ecosystem health. Finally, the government would be required to appoint one or more legal guardians on behalf of nature.  

The campaign seeks to add Serbia to the growing list of countries advancing the rights of nature. Already, Ecuador and Bolivia recognize rights of nature nationally, as do dozens of municipalities in the United States. In 2017, Mexico City voted to include rights of nature within its new constitution. And in April 2018, a Colombian court recognized the rights of the entire Colombian Amazon.

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About Earth Law Center, Earth Thrive, and International Rivers

Earth Law Center ( works to transform the law to recognize and protect nature’s inherent rights to exist, thrive and evolve. This includes advancing the inherent rights of rivers through initiatives with local partners to secure rights recognition.

Earth Thrive ( aims to establish nature’s rights in SE Europe/the Balkans and the Mediterranean region through the prevention of ecocides, education about permaculture and other holistic environmental practices, and remediation to help heal nature.

International Rivers ( works with an international network of dam-affected people, grassroots organizations, environmentalists, human rights advocates and others who are committed to stopping destructive river projects and promoting better options.