Imagine you are nature. What do you say about developing tourism here?

better tourism regenerative tourism
Imagine you are nature. What do you say about developing tourism here? Treetops in background with white writing in foreground, teal blue border and The Tourism Space white mountain logo at the bottom

Affording a Voice to Nature

The idea of nature having rights is not new to me. The idea of nature having an actual voice that we can hear and listen to though is relatively new.

In tourism terms, I first came across this concept listening to Elke Dens, Marketing Director of Visit Flanders when she was a Guest Speaker in The Huddle a couple of years ago. Elke described how Visit Flanders gave nature an actual seat at the decision-making table. In their meetings, somebody had the task of taking that seat and thinking, feeling and speaking for Nature in the first person.

What a simple yet radical way to ensure that Nature was being fully taken into the account in destination development and destination marketing decisions, before those decisions were actually taken!


Asking a not-so-easy question

Over the last couple of years, I’ve had the chance to introduce that concept when facilitating community and trade consultations here on the Island of Ireland. The title of this article is an exact question that I have been asking as part of consultations to kick start a destination planning process “Imagine you are Nature itself. What do you say about developing tourism here?”

People find the question a bit unsettling, particularly finding it very hard to express Nature’s voice in the first person. Our natural inclination is to remain a little distant, separated e.g. ‘Nature would say…’ or ‘People need to consider x, y, z when in nature’.

I get to push a little, and gently of course, and really encourage people to express Nature’s thoughts in the first person. It’s a small but essential shift that really allows us to humanise nature so that we can more readily identify with and understand nature.

Expressing Nature using ‘I’, ‘Me’ and ‘Myself’ de facto acknowledges that nature is a living, breathing entity just like ourselves that truly has a stake in the decisions we take – decisions about nature, around nature, for nature and even against nature. It bridges the false gap that we have constructed between nature and ourselves. We no longer get the cushion of feeling separate. Giving nature a voice like our own means we have to listen or at least hear.


Surprisingly Easy Answers?

People don’t get too long to think about the question during a 2 hour consultation. Their discussions are focused and the answers are pretty instinctive. Once people are able to step into that idea of being nature, it isn’t difficult at all to find words for what nature might say. What Nature says is surprising, simple and entirely self-evident.

Here are some of the things that people imagined they could say on behalf of Nature:

  • “I want to be understood and appreciated.”
  • “I want to be cared for and loved”
  • “I like being a teacher and think I can really help people learn. And I’m fun too!”
  • “I don’t want to be used. There are signs plonked all over me but no signs to me or about me.”
  • “I want to be healthy and live forever”
  • “I want to help people where I live, I want to help people who come here and I want them to help me too”
  • “Protect me and nurture me"
  • "Mind me and I will do the same for you”
  • “I know all our stories and all our history– I’ve been here for all of it. Let me share all that.”
  • “I really struggle when I feel violated and used. When I’m feeling like that, you’ll never see me at my best”
  • "Sustainably share me with the world"
  • "Let people learn from me"


What voice does Nature have?

Instinctively, people imagine nature speaking in simple terms and using everyday words. The Nature they imagine speaks of reciprocity and care, about wanting to be part of what we’re doing and about wanting to contribute. People imagine Nature’s voice to be vulnerable, asking politely to be loved for, cared for and protected. At the same time, they imagine Nature to be wise and strong, full of knowledge and experience and teaching. Nature in their words has an understanding voice, Nature feels very connected to people and wants to keep that connection healthy. Nature’s voice seems to have a tone of urging, reminding people that it’s there, asking people to remember it and what it might need.


If Nature had a say in your place…?

Think about your place and your tourism context. If Nature had a say, how would it develop a Greenway or a Blueway or a Mountain Bike Trail? If Nature had a voice, what would it say about how it is marketed, promoted and photographed? If Nature could speak, how would it seek to influence how people behave when they spend time in its company? If Nature was a Planning Official, how might it change infrastructure developments and permissions?

If you can, express those ideas in the first person as if you yourself were Nature and were speaking from the heart. This simple personalised and humanised question requires us to re-think tourism’s relationship with nature – away from one of extractive dominance to one of regenerative collaboration. The question can catalyse us into redefining the relationship of tourism to the natural world.


The Rights of Nature Movement

Rights of Nature is a growing global movement. According to Environmental Justice Network Ireland, “Rights of Nature is a way of re-thinking our relationship with nature – from one of dominance to one of sharing, caring, respect and interdependency. It can also act as a catalyst to shift our thinking from an extractive economy towards a regenerative economy. The idea of nature having rights is not new. Nature has rights. What is new is how we can intervene using a rights of nature lens to protect nature and to recognise the intrinsic rights of ecosystems and species to evolve, flourish, and regenerate.”


Legislating the Rights of Nature

Ecuador was the first country in the world to write the Rights of Nature into its constitution in 2008. Its people have been using the concept to stand up for their forests, even in courts of law. In December 2021 the country’s highest court ruled that copper and gold mining in the protected cloud forest Los Cedros was unconstitutional and violated the Rights of Nature.

In 2010, Bolivia passed the Law of the Rights of Mother Earth, which recognises the rights of nature to exist, thrive and regenerate.

The Whanganui River in New Zealand was granted legal personhood in 2017, recognising it as an indivisible and living whole with its own rights and interests.

In 2018, the Constitutional Court of Colombia recognised the Amazon region as a subject of rights, including the right to protection, conservation, maintenance and restoration.

The High Court of Uttarakhand State in India recognised the Ganges and Yamuna rivers as legal persons in 2020, giving them the same legal rights as human beings.

Several cities and towns across the United States have passed laws recognising the Rights of Nature, including Santa Monica and Pittsburgh.

Here in Ireland, Derry & Strabane District Council was the first local authority to pass a motion on the Rights of Nature in 2021. Motions have also been passed by Fermanagh & Omagh District Council, Newry Mourne & Down District Council and Donegal County Council.

While Rights of Nature is a relatively young global movement, it is certainly gaining traction.


The Last Word

In 2021, Councillor Maeve O’Neill of Derry & Strabane District Council was quoted as saying that this motion was “restoring the voice, the power of law to the rights of our landscape, rivers, mountains, woodland, coastlines to flourish and regenerate.”

That captures the essence of what tourism that is designed to be regenerative can achieve – giving voice and rights to nature so that nature can flourish and regenerate.


Tina O'Dwyer

Tina is a facilitator, mentor and coach with particular interest in sustainable tourism, regenerative tourism, food tourism, tourism networks and collaborations. Tina advises on regenerative approaches to tourism and has expertise in hosting community and industry consultations that incorporate sustainable and regenerative approaches to tourism development. For more information you can contact us at [email protected] or sign up to our weekly article for more insights here.

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