Customary law in Laos - offering a model for the legal protection of the environment?

The value of customary legal traditions in providing effective dispute resolution has become ever more appreciated, and many countries around the world have sought to build on such traditions to offer dispute resolution mechanisms that are accessible to the large numbers of people for whom litigation in a formal court is not an option.

Here in Laos, we are now re-discovering another aspect of some of the customary legal traditions in this country; their potential to provide a normative framework for environmental conservation.

While modern western legal systems evolved with the purpose of protecting individual property rights and economic interests, many customary legal systems have a totally different point of departure. These systems typically evolved in a context in which human beings depended directly on nature, and therefore respect for nature, and the spirits that represent nature, is paramount in many such legal orders.

This can be contrasted with modern legal systems, which essentiality regard nature as an economic asset that can be used and disposed of as any other asset. Consequently, our legal mechanisms are quite ineffective in regulating the rights and duties of humanity in relation to the nature. The fact that we remain unable to enforce a normative framework to limit the emissions of greenhouse gases, despite global warming now clearly threatening our very existence, is but one of many examples of this catastrophic failure. Nature simply does not have locus standi in our legal systems.

In many customary legal systems however, nature, and the more importantly the spirits that represent nature, are legal persons; they are ‘rights holders' to use popular rhetoric, and if those rights are violated, there are remedies to address such violations. The effect of this is that the environment is afforded a degree of protection, which modern legal systems have often failed to provide.

This video illustrates how it works in one community in central Laos. 

This video was produced by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The text above was contributed by Marcus Baltzer and does not represent the views of the IUCN.