LONDON, 21 March, 2019 − So Old Man River is getting a day in court: a growing international initiative is seeing to it that rivers gain legal protection against pollution and other forms of exploitation, in a move which insists that they have rights just as people do.
There are hopes that protecting rivers (and one lake) in this way could in time be extended to living species and to other features of the natural world.
The first river to win this legal safeguard is the Whanganui in New Zealand, which in March 2017 gained recognition as holding rights and responsibilities equivalent to a person. (The country had in 2014 already granted legal personhood to a forest.) The river – or rather, those acting for it – will now be able to sue for protection under the law.
The Te Awa Tupua (Whanganui River Claims Settlement) Act 2017 recognises the river and all its tributaries as a single entity, Te Awa Tupua, which has rights and interests and is the owner of its own river bed. The river can both sue and be sued. The Act also acknowledges the river as a living whole that stretches from the mountains to the sea.
Two individuals, one from the government and the other from the indigenous Whanganui people, have been appointed to serve as the river’s legal custodians, acting for its health and well-being. They work in the same way that legal guardians represent children in loco parentis (in place of a parent).
Legal rights are not the same as human rights, which include civil and political rights. And conferring legal personhood on non-humans already happens with many organisations.
But the Rapid Transition Alliance, an enthusiastic backer of the idea, says: “Conferring personhood – even of this limited kind – on a part of non-human nature could prove a game changer.
“Accepting a non-human part of nature as a legal entity requires a conceptual shift away from placing humanity at the centre of everything. This understanding could generate other legal changes handing power to other parts of our natural world.”
The New Zealand example spread fast. On the day in March 2017 when it recognised the rights of the Whanganui river, the Ganges and Yamuna river system in India was also given the legal status of persons after a battle to stop it being polluted.
The Indian court, treating the river system as a minor, appointed specific government posts in the state of Uttarakhand to act in loco parentis. But it is now being challenged because the river flows across state borders where local government has no jurisdiction.
Other countries which have explored the idea of rights for nature include Ecuador, Bolivia, Turkey and Nepal. The Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature maintains a comprehensive list of similar worldwide initiatives; they include groups such as Lawyers Responding to Climate Change (LRI) and ClientEarth.
Two years after New Zealand and India, the concept had reached the US: in February 2019 voters in Toledo, Ohio approved a ballot to give Lake Erie, which forms part of the border between the US and Canada and was heavily polluted, rights normally associated with a person.
The pressure in Toledo came partly from an insistence on an urgent clean-up of the lake’s toxic water. But it drew as well on an older tradition, kept alive by indigenous groups who still retain a folk memory of how things had been before the industrial revolution.
“Conferring personhood – even of this limited kind – on a part of non-human nature could prove a game changer”
The vote excited comment. One critic saw it as an anti-capitalism plot and cited in his support a plan to give an orang-utan in Argentina the legal right to leave a zoo. But the Australian Centre for the Rights of Nature took a more positive view, saying that recognising the rights in law meant rejecting “the notion that nature is human property.”
Another influence on the spread of the idea of rights for nature is likely to be the concept of critical biodiversity, which argues that species diversity is needed for a healthy ecosystem to thrive.
Progress on that and on rights for nature has so far been tentative and exploratory, and there are many obstacles ahead.
But if they could reinforce each other in safeguarding species like the great apes, the forest fauna of south-east Asia and areas under pressure such as the Great Barrier Reef and Amazonia, the gains could be immense. − Climate News Network
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