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Granting Citizenship to Wildlife: Devaluing Citizenship or a Method of Environmental Protection?

Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the individual author. All rights are reserved to the original authors of the materials consulted, which are identified in the footnotes below.

Curridabat, a large suburb outside of Costa Rica’s capital, San José introduced an innovative new approach to sustainable urban planning in 2015. From a country that at the time was subject to overpopulated urban areas and high rates of deforestation, the neighbourhood paved the way for new approaches to these global issues. Known as the ‘Sweet City’ and recognised internationally for its efforts in the Wellbeing City Award 2018 where it was a finalist, Curridabat introduced a seven step plan which focused not only on the health and wellbeing of the people, but also on the experience of its wildlife. Focusing on the ‘raindrop’s experience’ and the ‘earthworm’s experience’ the suburb was able to consider all citizens in its planning and thus better protect the environment for everyone.

It is well-known that urbanisation has long been antithetical to environmental sustainability. It is estimated that by 2050, two-thirds of the world’s population will live in urban areas [1] and thus the environmental damage caused by cities without dramatically changing, could worsen. In Costa Rica, this problem is particularly apparent, where already half of the country’s population live on land covering less than 5% of Costa Rica’s total land mass.[2] Curridabat in its planning attempted to introduce nature to the suburb to combat traditionally damaging urban layouts; introducing measures such as ‘sponge city’ infrastructure to enable the recycling of water and involving citizens in the planting of 5,000 linear feet of plants parallel to pavements. [3] However, most revolutionary in its approach, was making the city’s pollinators ‘honorary citizens’ due to what it represents and what it could do in the future.

While granting citizenship was more a publicity stunt in recognising nature in the suburb, it reflects an adapted approach to the protection of the environment. Traditionally, nature has been protected through negative obligations on the part of humans, for example to not damage their natural environment. However, the plan, introduced by Curridabat’s mayor, Edgar Mora, was to actively protect the suburb’s vulnerable citizens -the wildlife. By officially recognising nature’s presence within the urban setting, the protection of wildlife was given greater consideration in the urban plan. The granting of citizenship to wildlife can be compared to the similar controversial topic of granting citizenship to animals. Advocates of animal welfare protection have argued that citizenship is an effective means for protecting animals. [4] For if citizenship provides inviolable rights, it is not fair that they be denied based on cognitive complexity. They argue that applying positive rights is essential to animal welfare protection and that the threshold to be a citizen solely depends on the level of coexistence with humans and presence in society. [5] [6] If this low threshold were applied to plants, the existence of wildlife within cities could be enough to confer rights to wildlife too.

Others may argue that protecting the vulnerable through positive rights should not be done through granting citizenship. Along the Athenian classical conception of citizenship, where a citizen must possess certain abilities including rationality and moral reasoning (and other discriminatory requirements that have since been disregarded); animals and wildlife should not be granted citizenship. Although today, this has changed to include a rights-based idea of citizenship which confers rights and duties on the citizen, animals and plants would still be excluded from this traditional notion of citizenship.

The granting of citizenship to wildlife has not yet been widely considered since Edgar Mora’s local government was the first to introduce the concept. However, if it is anything like that of the debate on animal citizenship, the argument concerns whether citizenship should be applied to protect the vulnerable or whether citizenship only applies to those capable of moral reasoning and carries with it duties and responsibilities on the part of the citizen. In Curridabat’s approach, making pollinators ‘honorary citizens’ beneficially ensured that humans recognise and protect the environment with an unprecedented level of recognition as to nature’s habitat. This honorary measure shaped the urban planning which contributed to the suburb’s success as a globally recognised sustainable neighbourhood. However, the question remains as to whether granting citizenship is the best way to achieve the much-needed environmental protection when citizenship has not been traditionally used for that purpose.

Jemima Gravatt

Feature Writer



[1] UN DESA, World Urbanisation Prospects: The 2018 Revision (2019)

[2] Patrick Greenfield, ‘Sweet City’: the Costa Rican suburb that gave citizenship to bees, plants and trees’ (BBC, 29 April 2020) accessed 23 May 2020

[3] Design Exchange, ‘Why Curridabat is the Sweetest City in the World’ (27 August 2019) accessed 24 May 2020

[4] Will Kymlicka and Sue Donaldson, ‘Animals and the Frontiers of Citizenship’ (2014) 34 OJLS 201

[5] William Edmundson, ‘Do Animals Need Citizenship?’ (2015) 13 International Journal of Constitutional Law 749

[6] Veera Ilona Iija, ‘An Analysis of the Concept of Citizenship: Legal, Political and Social Dimensions’ (Masters thesis, University of Helsinki 2014)

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