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Should Rivers Have the Same Legal Rights as Humans?

DSLR picture POV of a man relaxing near a lake on a beautiful day of autumn season. There is coloured mountains in background and the lake is calm. The man is holding a beer bottle.
By Richard Dahl on September 19, 2019

It might sound wacky, but a growing number of people think the best way to protect rivers or other natural resources from pollution is to give them the same legal status as humans.

In Florida, for instance, grassroots groups are pushing for laws in five counties that would recognize the “legally enforceable rights” of six rivers. They are following the lead of voters in Toledo, Ohio, which in February passed “The Lake Erie Bill of Rights,” a measure designed to provide citizens a tool to sue on behalf of the lake itself when it’s environmentally endangered.

‘Right of Nature’ Laws

The fact that the Ohio measure was subsequently scuttled by legislators has not deterred the Florida groups, who are apparently aware that “Right of Nature” laws are gaining traction around the world. In 2017, New Zealand was the first country to do so when it gave the 90-mile-long Whanganui River the same legal rights as a human. Days later, the Indian state of Uttarakhand did the same with the Ganges River and its longest tributary, the Yamuna.

Then, in July of this year, Bangladesh passed the most spectacular “Right of Nature” application to date when it became the first nation to give every river in the country the same legal status as humans.

These laws typically call for a group or groups to act in the best interests of the river, much like a parent or custodian. In Bangladesh, the official caretaker is a new, government-appointed National River Conservation Commission, which can take anyone who harms the rivers to court. In New Zealand, a local Maori tribe now essentially has custodial rights over the river they consider an ancestor.

The idea that an ecosystem deserves the same legal status as a human has been gestating for several decades. University of Southern California law professor Christopher D. Stone proffered it in a 1974 book, “Should Trees Have Standing? Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects.” The argument has come to be known as “environmental personhood,” and it’s finally taken root in the countries mentioned above.

Can an Elephant Be a Person?

It’s worth noting, too, that the idea of “personhood” among nonhumans is catching on elsewhere. An animal-rights organization, the Nonhuman Rights Project, has launched a legal effort to secure personhood for an aging Bronx Zoo elephant named Happy, and a decision could be coming soon.

Happy has been living alone in the Bronx Zoo for the last 13 years since her companions died, and her lawyers from NhRP says that she is deserving of personhood because, as an elephant, she has strong self-awareness. Therefore, they say, she is “unlawfully imprisoned” and should be released from the zoo and transferred to an elephant sanctuary.

While these efforts to secure human-type legal status for nonhumans seem to be inching forward, it might be easy to forget that much bigger legal advances have arguably already been made along this front. In its 2010 Citizens United ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court extended First Amendment rights to corporations. And in its 2014 Hobby Lobby ruling, the court said that closely held corporations may exercise freedom of religion.

So, one might ask: If U.S. law has already granted personhood to corporations, why not to rivers? Or self-aware elephants?

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