Clinton Pavlovic

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Should rivers have legal rights?

2019-01-14

This extract is from the article Should Rivers Have Rights? A Growing Movement Says It's About Time, that looks at the legal practice of granting legal personality to living ecosystems.

Inspired by indigenous views of nature, a movement to grant a form of legal personhood to rivers is gaining some ground - a key step, advocates say, in reversing centuries of damage inflicted upon the world's waterways. ...

With the number of dams in Chile at 137 and counting, indigenous people, citizens, and environmental activists [including the authors, members of the Chilean Free-Flowing Rivers Network] say the time has come to look at granting legal rights - a form of legal personhood - to the nation's rivers. This campaign is not occurring in isolation, however, and is taking inspiration from other countries where a small but growing number of courts and legislatures have begun bestowing legal rights upon rivers. Three countries - New Zealand, Colombia, and India - have all taken such steps over the past two years, though the practical ramifications of these declarations remain unclear. ...

One criticism levied by environmental groups is that in countries like Chile and the United States, corporations are granted the same rights as people while the living ecosystems upon which we depend for survival are not. ...

One solution to reducing conflicts draws on the corporations are people logic, applying it to waterways. Over the last two years, a series of legislative acts and court decisions have emerged across the globe that propose caring for a river as if it were a person. In 2017, New Zealand granted the status of legal personhood to the Whanganui River, the third-longest in the country and, the indigenous Maori believe, a living ancestor of their people. In doing so, the New Zealand parliament merged Western legal values with the Maori worldview to resolve the country's longest-running water conflict, during which the Maori fought hydroelectric projects and gravel extraction schemes. ...

Under the new agreement, the Whanganui has the same rights as a person. A special committee that includes community representatives is authorized to act as legal administrator, and the river can now be represented in court proceedings. The river will be represented by two officials, one from the Whanganui iwi (Maori word meaning people) and the other from the government. Through the agreement, the Whanganui iwi will be granted authority to conduct cultural activities, give official geographic name assignments, and get financing for social and environmental projects, which include the river's ecosystem restoration.

Edit: Another discussion covering a similar topic is found at: Toledo voters approve legal rights for Lake Erie.

Note: I have written a note on an approach adoped in South Africa where the law allows a private citizen to bring criminal prosecution proceedings against a company if it is in the public interest or for the protection of the environment.

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