In 2017, four rivers applied for and obtained legal rights: the Whanganui River in New Zealand, the Altrato River in Colombia, and the Ganga and Yamuna rivers in India. The case of New Zealand is fundamentally unique because Parliament passed the Te Awa Tupua Act, which appoints two river guardians: a representative of the indigenous Maori people and a representative of the government – the Crown – who arguably reconcile two different worldviews. In 1972, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas first asserted the legal rights of nature in a U.S. court in a dissenting opinion on Sierra Club v. Morton. Companies are legally considered people, so «valleys, alpine meadows, rivers, lakes, estuaries, beaches, ridges, groves of trees, marshes or even air» should also receive a legal entity, Douglas argued. The developments in Florida are consistent with how advocates elsewhere are pushing the law. Enforcement of existing laws takes center stage, with litigation aimed at upholding Minnesota`s natural rights as tribes fight to block Line 3 until Ecuador emerges, where lawyers eagerly await Supreme Court decisions. To see what this would actually look like, in 2017, Indian courts granted legal rights to the Ganges and Yamuna rivers based on the sacred value of the rivers and to protect the rivers from pollution. The courts legally considered the rivers to be minors and appointed state government guardians to oversee their protection. In the United States, Lake Erie received legally enforceable rights to nature in 2019 by a citizens` group called Toledoans for Safe Water.
However, Drewes Farms Partnership, an Ohio-based agricultural company, is questioning the law, saying the city of Toledo did not have the authority to pass it. Some environmentalists worry that even if the law remains in place, the appointed guardian may not have the resources to defend it, especially when it comes to businesses that have a lot more money to sue. Greg Dalton: And that`s very different from capitalism, which is driven by quarterly profits and quarterly profits and very short-term prospects. I`ve learned a lot, as Lindsey said earlier, about the white privilege he walks around with. I`ve learned a lot about mine and the shortcomings of my education, and I think a lot of Americans don`t realize that tribes are sovereign nations. So how do tribal law and American law interact with respect to the rights of nature? People can sue on behalf of animals, plants or even rivers. But there are a few clear things that most «rights of nature» cases have in common. In these cases, nature has standing to bring an action or has the right to defend itself in court. Greg Dalton: Lindsey, in the world of corporate sustainability, there`s a big effort called ecosystem services that basically gives a monetary value to the services that nature provides to people. A forest purifies water flowing into a stream that benefits people or perhaps a factory.
And the idea is that for businesses, and this is a very business-centric vision, if something has economic value, it can be measured, it can be protected. A standing tree does not appear in GDP. But a tree that is cut down and turned into furniture or paper appears in GDP. So assigning an economic value to a tree that provides shade and other ecosystem benefits is a good thing. Do you see that as a good thing, supporting the rights of nature or more exploitation and abduction? No. Current environmental regulatory structures focus on «allowing» certain harms, such as hydraulic fracturing, mining, and factory farming. They act more to legalize the harmful activities of corporations and other business entities than to protect our natural and human communities. Another criticism is that court involvement necessarily creates barriers to justice, particularly the exorbitant costs required to initiate legal action and reliance on fallible human enforcement of legal rights. While these are undoubtedly issues that require serious consideration, they are systemic issues that do not specifically target natural rights. Moreover, even the threat of a lawsuit could deter companies from destroying the environment.
Earlier this year, an Indian court said the «natural world» should have legal rights equal to those of humans. Judge Sundarim Srimathy wrote in the opinion that Mother Nature «should be granted all the appropriate rights, duties and responsibilities of a living person. Past generations have given us `Mother Earth` in its original glory, and we are morally obligated to pass on the same Mother Earth to the next generation. Melissa Nelson, a member of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa Indian Band and a professor of Indigenous sustainability at ASU`s School of Sustainability, said Indigenous tribes are using the movement in tribal courts to protect waters, food and even a sacred mountain. On July 6, Oklahoma`s Ponca Tribe unanimously passed legislation recognizing the enduring rights of the Arkansas River and South Fork River that flow through their territory. Lindsey Schromen-Wawrin: We`re just giving judges an opportunity to look at these ideas and say, well, we want to change the way we think about them. Whether it`s government intervention in local democracy or natural rights or corporate rights like air quality rights. But you know, so far they don`t bite. And that probably means there are a few things. First, we do not have political power.
They are not lawyers. These are mass social movements that come from below and say we need to change our system because it is taking us over a cliff that we cannot leave. And without that, it doesn`t matter how much of a silver language the lawyers of the U.S. Supreme Court are. The court responds to public opinion, and we need this broader movement that says we cannot continue to treat land as property and we need to recognize that the land and its ecosystems have rights. And this will eventually lead to a change in the legal system. There will be mechanisms, you know, it happens through a constitutional amendment of the state, and then, you know, those are valid by the courts. But what`s really going to decide or break this is that we`re all working together to say we need to make this change. My work focuses on international and comparative law in relation to environmental justice and human rights. I recently spent time in New Zealand studying the impact of a 2017 law giving the Whanganui River its own legal identity. What I saw there convinced me that the legal status of a natural person is a viable method of environmental protection. In my view, however, the processes by which proponents pass the Natural Rights Act will decisively influence the success of these efforts.
For example, Duluth residents who are concerned about mercury, asbestos, cadmium, lead and arsenic entering their drinking water upstream as a result of the proposed copper-nickel mine are referred to the state regulatory system, where their primary recourse is to comment on the project`s environmental impact statement. to fight against permits in court and to fight for compliance with pollution standards. But the regulatory system defines what, where and how much pollution is allowed, not whether the pollution is allowed. By recognizing the rights of nature, the community can make protecting ecosystems a top priority. In the mid-18th century, the Industrial Revolution catalyzed the development of an economic system that viewed nature as a form of natural capital rather than a source of life. New economic paradigms have encouraged industry to constantly exploit nature in order to stimulate unlimited monetary growth. Modern democracy and human rights also emerged during this period, but they focused on the well-being of the individual rather than the community as a whole. In accordance with the legal and economic systems in force, society has normalized the separation of man and nature. In the United States, natural rights cases have traditionally occurred at the local or tribal level, such as the Klamath River case. Legal experts argue that if we can enforce nature`s legal rights, we will have another tool in our arsenal to protect wildlife and deal with the twin crises of biodiversity loss and climate change. Imagine if the Amazon had legal representation.
Or if the Colorado River had a bill of rights. Or when an ecosystem has received personality. An oft-cited criticism of the granting of natural rights is their uncertainty and impracticability. Given the size of a river or forest, how can we blame a household or business? Even if we can identify a defendant, how can we calculate the human cost of environmental degradation, such as the depletion of a rare species of fish or the pollution of a river, in dollars? In response, uncertainty about the rights of nature may be largely a matter of beginning. The more cases brought before the courts, the clearer the case law is likely to emerge. Despite the inevitable difficulties in identifying defendants in complex cases with multiple causes and parties to environmental damage, it is encouraging to see precedents such as the Vilcabamba River case where litigation has been successfully conducted in more limited areas where damage clearly emanated from a unit. He didn`t look at Trump or Biden. O`Neal had spent the past two years leading a campaign in Orange County, Florida, based on an unorthodox legal doctrine that rivers, mountains and forests should have legal rights, just like humans.