Legal Identity for Trees workshop


A workshop with Heath Bunting and An Mertens 12–13 October 2012 organised by FoAM and Z33

Our starting point: we are dependent on trees for our survival, even as the ongoing global process of rapid extinction continues apace. What does it mean to integrate trees as legal entities into our social systems, and how can we proceed with this?

We began each day of the workshop surveying various trees in the Forêt de Soignes and in the city. We tried guess their age and find names for them, wondered about their nationality, and discussed their gender. We realised trees already maintain some functional and legal relationships with their environment. They produce oxygen, food and fertile soil; in Belgium they're owned by a person, an organisation or an institute; and they have a wide range of ‘users'.

During afternoon discussions we found that nationality as a concept leads to complicated issues, certainly with respect to trees. We proposed to replace the parameter of nationality with that of ‘family’, which could refer to lineage, but also to the context in which the tree grows. A tree in the city has another personality and human use than a tree in the forest: for example, besides the parameters of name, date of birth, 'family', postal address, email, fax, national number, bank account or debit card, we proposed to add the parameter of ‘users’.

We asked ourselves some philosophical questions about what it would mean if trees had rights and duties, if they organised themselves into a political party - for example a ‘party of the silent’ - and if a legal identity for trees would also enhance the personal relationships between humans and trees. Besides a human and artificial persona, we determined that there could also be an ‘arboresceal persona'.

From the idea that we can manage our identities and co-create the systems in which we are situated, we want to invoke the legal identity of trees into existence. We left the workshop with the promise to integrate trees into our daily lives: to make them part of our discourse and discover their identity as arboresceal personas. (Potential candidates for this were the plane trees outside the Walvis, the American oak next to l'Eglise des Minimes in Les Marolles, a Quercus robur near Enfants Noyes/Verdronken Kinderen.) This could include such tasks as collecting data and stories about the trees, checking the laws on trees in their local areas, talking to tree users and owner(s), and so forth.