Rights for nature is an environmental trend where natural resources are awarded the same rights as human beings. Also known as environmental personhood, this trend is gaining momentum as activists look for new ways to protect the planet’s natural resources. The current legal infrastructure around the world has not been adequate in protecting its rivers and lakes.
Bodies of water are being polluted by both corporations and individuals who view them as exploitable resources, where they can, among other things, dump waste or dredge illegally. Dredging harms biodiversity and can promote erosion.
In many instances, indigenous communities are behind the progessive rulings as they are accustomed to living in harmony with nature. A landmark ruling in 2017 resulted in the Whanganui river in New Zealand being awarded legal rights, the first river in the world to achieve this. A tremendous victory for the Maori people who had been advocating for this for 140 years. Many live alongside the river and consider it sacred. A citizen representative and government official were appointed as joint custodians to oversee the care of the waterway.
That same year, the Indian government granted legal rights to the Ganges river, considered sacred by more than 1 billion Indians. The highly polluted river became the first non-human entity in India to be granted the same legal rights as people. Polluting it would be regarded in law as similar to harming a human being. However the declaration was short-lived: after a legal challenge, the Supreme Court suspended the lower court’s decision, finding that the ruling was unimplementable as the river runs through several states.
But Bangladesh did manage to strike a blow for the environment. It became the first country to grant all of its rivers human rights in July 2019. “In Bangladesh, the river is considered as our mother. The river is now considered by law, by code, a living entity, so you’ll have to face the consequence by law if you do anything that kills the river,” says environmental group Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon.
The most recent law of this kind was passed in February 2020. Citizens of Toledo, Ohio passed the Lake Erie Bill to help reduce toxic algae blooms. These blooms, caused mainly by agricultural pollution, kill fish, pets and threaten public health. But the law has been challenged in court and has yet to take effect.
Despite some setbacks, legislation like this means the custodians of rivers and lakes can sue individuals and corporations for harming bodies of water. The financial compensation received for damages would be used to repair and restore ecosystems.These laws are meant to encourage a more respectful attitude to the environment and to discourage harmful behaviour rather than going to court.
Countries around the world are joining in this movement to grant legal rights to rivers and lakes, and in some cases, even species. The Earth has suffered a great deal of biodiversity loss. We need to urgently protect what’s left in order for our species to survive. Critics argue that these laws, which are in their infancy, are difficult to enforce. However, granting legal rights to rivers and lakes could give them their best chance to be protected.
By Faeeza Khan
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