Rivers Win in the Fight for Non-Human Rights

Environmental advocates have a new strategy to protect natural resources: granting natural systems legal personhood.
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The Whanganui River in New Zealand. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The Whanganui River in New Zealand. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As environmental regulations in the United States continue to topple, lawmakers overseas offer at least one means of protecting the natural environment from pollution and degradation: grantingresources legal rights.

Following a nearly 150-year dispute, New Zealand’s Whanganui River iwi — the local Māori tribe — have finally reached a settlement with the Crown to recognize the Whanganui River as a person in the eyes of the law. The iwi sought to obtain rights for the river because they have long believed that the good health of the river, which stretches some 90 miles across the country, is linked to the well-being of the tribe. From the late 19th century until 2007, raw sewage and farm run-off had been dumped into the river, causing the fish and bird populations to disappear. (A wastewater treatment plant commissioned in 2007 helped restore local wildlife populations.)

Two guardians will be appointed, one by the iwi and the other by the Crown, to protect the interests of the river.

Shortly after the settlement in New Zealand, a court in India quickly followed suit, granting the Ganges river and one of its tributaries the same legal rights, in an attempt to galvanize clean up efforts of the polluted waterways.

Rivers are hardly the first non-human entities to be granted the legal rights of personhood, as George Johnsonreported in Pacific Standard last year:

Persons, as defined by the law, are not necessarily human beings. Corporations, after all, have long been considered “juridical” or “artificial” persons with some of the rights and obligations of people. They can sue and be sued and have rights to freedom of speech (as in Citizens United) and even, to a more limited extent, religious expression (as in the Hobby Lobby case).

Off in another realm, legal scholars foresee a day when a judge will decide whether to grant personhood to an artificially intelligent computer program or to a chimera created in a lab by fusing human and non-human genes.

Johnson was reporting on the push to expand the legal rights that humans enjoy to some of our closest kin: the great apes. The argument of such groups is that animal welfare laws have not done enough to protect Earth’s other living creatures, Johnson reported. “It may only be when animals are recognized as rights-bearing subjects that their advocates will have the leverage to push for greater protections,” he wrote.

And it seems the same argument could be made for the environment.

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