Can Human Rights Save Mother Nature?

In March 2017, New Zealand’s Whanganui River became the world’s first river to be declared a legal person. James Shook [CC BY 2.5]/Wikimedia Commons

If you've spent time on a scenic river or hiked through a special wilderness area, you've probably had moments where nature seemed alive — truly alive, with a presence, a personality and a mind of its own. Almost human.

Now the law is beginning to recognize this sense of oneness with nature that many of us feel. Around the world, governments and courts have begun viewing the natural world — most recently rivers — as worthy of the same rights as human beings.

Call it ancient wisdom or a new eco-paradigm; either way, the ramifications for protecting the planet from human exploitation are profound.

"Our [current] legal system is ... anthropocentric, extremely human-centered, believing that all of nature exists purely to serve human needs," argues Mumta Ito, the founder of the International Centre for Wholistic Law and Rights of Nature Europe, in a 2016 TEDx Findhorn talk. "Contrast this with a wholistic framework of law that puts our existence on this planet within its ecological context. Ecosystems and other species would have legal personality, like corporations, with the right to exist, to thrive, to regenerate, and to play their role in the web of life."

Watch more of Ito's talk here:

Legal status for nature

Not surprisingly, many efforts to confer human rights on the natural world are being spearheaded in places where indigenous beliefs about nature's life-giving importance remain integral to the culture. That is, places where people and Mother Earth are considered equal partners rather than master and subordinate.

Most recently in March, an Indian court gave two of the country's most iconic rivers — the Ganges and Yamuna (both considered sacred by the country's vast Hindu population) — the same rights as people and appointed two officials to act as their legal guardians. The hope is to protect them against widespread pollution from untreated sewage, farm runoff and factory effluents.

In the eyes of the law, both rivers and their tributaries are now "legal and living entities having the status of a legal person with all corresponding rights, duties and liabilities." In other words, harming them will be viewed the same as harming a human being.

Ganges River has human legal status
India's sacred Ganges, one of the planet's most polluted rivers, now enjoys human legal status. Ryan [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr

The Indian announcement follows on the heels of a similar development in New Zealand where the parliament gave human legal status to its third longest river, the Whanganui.

Long revered by the Maori people, the winding Whanganui, located on New Zealand's North Island, can now go to court with the help of a two-person guardian team consisting of one Maori tribe member and a government representative.

New Zealand was already on the forefront of the human-rights-for-nature movement after passing a special government statute in 2014 recognizing Te Urewera National Park as "an entity in and of itself" with "all the rights, powers, duties, and liabilities of a legal person." Guided by a board composed largely of its traditional Maori owners – the Tuhoe tribe – this remote hilly wilderness, also on New Zealand's North Island, has the right to defend itself from environmental harm.

Animals are people, too

Time will tell whether wild Sumatran tigers in the jungles of Indonesia or western lowland gorillas in Africa are awarded the human right to exist and thrive. For now at least, the emphasis is largely on the legal rights of creatures not to be held in captivity rather than awarding human rights to those living in the wild.

Photo: micaelacampagna [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr

For instance, in 2013, India banned aquariums and water parks that exploit dolphins and other cetaceans for entertainment after declaring that these creatures are "nonhuman persons" with a legal right to life and liberty. In November 2016, a judge in Argentina ruled that a chimpanzee in zoo captivity named Cecilia was a "nonhuman person" with a right to live in her natural habitat. Cecilia is now in a primate sanctuary. And in the United States, the appellate division of the New York Supreme Court is currently considering a similar case seeking nonhuman "personhood" rights for captive chimps Kiko and Tommy.

Evolution of 'wild law'

The movement to grant nature human legal status has been quietly growing for years. In 1972, University of Southern California law professor Christopher Stone published an essay called "Should Trees Have Standing?" which argued for the legal rights of natural objects. Three years later it was developed into a book by the same name that continues to carry weight.

Stone's premise even influenced a 1972 Supreme Court case called Sierra Club v. Morton. Though the Sierra Club lost its bid to stop the development of a California ski resort, the landmark dissenting opinion by Justice William O. Douglas argued that natural resources, like trees, alpine meadows and beaches, should have legal standing to sue for their protection.

Fast forward to 2002 when South African environmental lawyer Cormac Cullinan published a book called "Wild Law: A Manifesto for Earth Justice." It gave a new name — wild law — to an idea whose time may finally have come.

In 2008, Ecuador become the first nation to rewrite its constitution formally recognizing that the natural world has the "right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles." In 2010, Bolivia followed suit, and several municipalities in the U.S. have since hopped aboard the nature's-rights bandwagon, including Pittsburgh and Santa Monica, California.

Will it work?

Giving legal standing to the earth is a leap forward, according to many environmentalists, but enforcing it may be tricky unless everyone involved — corporations, judges, citizens and other stakeholders — agree to honor the laws. Many activists also worry that legal rights alone won't make already polluted or damaged ecosystems healthy again without a coordinated cleanup effort.

Even with these hurdles, though, most agree that aligning human laws with the larger "laws" of nature may be the only way to save the planet.

As environmental attorney and author Cormac Cullinan noted in a 2010 speech to the World People's Summit on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in Bolivia: "The law operates like the DNA of a society. Until we get rid of the idea that Mother Earth and all the beings that form part of her are property ... we are going to have problems. What we are trying to do in establishing the rights of Mother Earth ... is to establish a new DNA."

Watch more of Cullinan's talk in the video below: