Reconnecting with the Living Earth through Restorative Justice

By Femke Wijdekop

Our legal system contributes to our disconnection from the Earth. It mistakenly treats nature as a commodity and entitles us to own and exploit the natural world. However, treating nature as property leads to violations of both human rights and nature’s rights. When we continue to exploit nature, this will sooner or later result in human suffering:

  • Unbridled extraction of natural resources and fossil fuels leads to climate change and environmental destruction.
  • Climate change and environmental destruction result in the violation of human rights such as the rights to life and health. For example, in 2015 more than 1,200 people died in Pakistan following heatwaves attributed to climate change.
  • Environmental defenders who stand up against the exploitation of nature are under attack. According to Global Witness’ 2016 report Defenders of the Earth, almost four environmental defenders are murdered every week.

Ecologically conscious lawyers are innovating solutions to counter the exploitation of nature—solutions that also question the outdated economic growth imperative and anthropocentric bias of our legal system. Among these solutions are climate cases that focus on intergenerational justice and planetary stewardship, the movement to criminalize ecosystem destruction—ecocide—and initiatives to acknowledge the rights of nature.

But are species loss, ecosystem destruction, and climate change best addressed with adversarial legal strategies? If we ostracize those directly responsible for large-scale environmental harm, does this not strengthen the separation consciousness that we are trying to rise above? A more peaceful and system-oriented approach towards protecting the rights of nature and future generations is better equipped to contribute to a culture of interbeing. Could Restorative Justice, therefore, play a role in reconnecting us to the living Earth?

Restorative Justice is a fast-growing social movement that aims to redirect society’s retributive response to crime. It is a process whereby all the parties with a stake in a particular offense come together to collectively resolve how to deal with the aftermath of the offense and its implications for the future. Restorative Justice emerged in North America during the 1970s when alternative approaches to the criminal justice system were becoming a trend. The Mennonite Church played a role of importance in developing the first restorative processes in Canada and the USA. At the same time, many of the values, principles, and practices of Restorative Justice reflect those of indigenous cultures, such as the Maori in New Zealand and the First Nations People of Canada and the USA. In these indigenous cultures, community members collectively participate in finding a solution for conflict.

Restorative Justice views crime as a wrong against other members of the community rather than a depersonalized breaking of the law. It emphasizes healing the wounds of the victims, offenders, and communities, caused or revealed by the criminal behavior. It seeks to achieve such healing through community-based processes, which offer an inclusive way of dealing with offenders and victims of crime through facilitated meetings. These processes focus on accountability and seek to repair the damage done by crime. They also create the possibility of reconciliation through practicing compassion, healing, mercy, and forgiveness.

In New Zealand, Australia, and Canada, Restorative Justice has been successfully applied to environmental harms. Caselaw from these countries shows a variety of restorative outcomes: apologies; restoration of environmental harm and prevention of future harm through environmental education of the offender; compensatory restoration of environments elsewhere; payment of compensation to the victims; and community service work. In New Zealand, trees and rivers have been recognized as victims of environmental crime in their own right and have been represented by indigenous organizations in the restorative process. Indigenous communities’ strong connection with the land and their skills in listening to the non-verbal communication from nature uniquely positions them to be spokespersons for the suffering Earth. Recognizing the environment as a victim of environmental crime and representing it in the Restorative Justice process grants the Earth a voice, validity, and respect. This is a transformative act as it recognizes the intrinsic value and ‘aliveness’ of the Earth. It contributes to transforming humanity’s relationship with the Earth from one of exploitation towards a duty of care.

Furthermore, Restorative Justice processes allow a wide range of emotional and spiritual values to be expressed and acknowledged. Thanks to this ‘open’ character, Restorative Justice is well suited to create space for ecocentric approaches to what constitutes an environmental violation, who can be a victim of such a violation, and what restoration looks like. Finally, when the offender is confronted with the harmful effect of his or her actions on the natural world in a restorative circle, this might plant seeds for ecological awakening and a change of heart.

Because of its open character, indigenous roots, and focus on reconciliation, Restorative Justice holds great potential to address the deeper causes of our ecological crisis and to reconnect us with the living Earth. Best practices from New Zealand, Australia, and Canada can assist us in developing restorative responses to environmental harms in our local context. Pioneering in this field might be one of the most promising paths we can take.