Environmental Personhood: when rivers become legal entities

4 mins read

By Nina Kaufmann

Environmental personhood is a legal concept which designates certain environmental entities the status of a legal person. In recent years this innovative and challenging concept has mainly been applied to a growing number of rivers across the globe, from New Zealand to Columbia, India to the United States. But will the new legal standing of these rivers really have an impact on how we view and treat them, or are the moves rather symbolic? The implications of environmental personhood for some of the world’s greatest rivers are promising, but still unclear.

For centuries, millions of Indians have pilgrimed to the sacred river beds of Ganges and Yamuna. During the Kumbh Mela, one of the worlds largest religious holidays, many will take a dip in the holy water, and some will even drink it. However, this does not seem to be a great idea as the more than 2,500 km long Ganges river is so polluted that many fear for its future. The same goes for the Yamuna, another great and religiously significant Indian river. As the environmental deterioration rapidly continues, not only the waters are at risk, but also the billions of lives – humans, animals, and plants – depending on them.

The stakes are high. So what to do? In 2017, the Indian government decided on a new path of action; instead of continuing to consider the waters just as a part of nature, they chose to assign them their own personhood. This implies that the rivers now are individual legal entities and enjoy the same legal status as Indian citizens; treating them poorly is now seen as equivalent to hurting a human being.

Giving threatened natural entities legal rights has become a worldwide trend in recent years. Ten years ago, Ecuador opted to incorporate the rights of Mother Earth – Pachamama – into the national constitution. On September 28, 2008, almost three-quarter of the voters approved this step in a nationwide referendum. Two years later, neighboring Bolivia followed the path by granting the legal standing of nature by adopting new laws for its rights, including appointing an ombudsman for its protection. One of the first countries to give a whole river a new legal standing was New Zealand when the Whanganui River became a legal person in early 2017, a reform which was initiated by the Maori population along the waterbed. Shortly after, the Parliament of Colombia made a similar move by passing an act on the status of the Atrato. With India following by guaranteeing the rights of Ganges and Yamuna, we can for sure assume that there has occurred a major shift in the human approach towards nature. But is it enough?

Parts of Ganges are already considered ecologically dead and the state of the Atrato river has been described as seriously endangered. Environmentalists across the globe have praised the upgrading of the rivers’ juridical standing, and many see the move as an important step towards bringing the issue of the polluted rivers higher up on the political agenda. However, not all think that turning natural entities into legal persons is the best solution to the decades of dismissive attitude towards the damaging of essential watercourses. A crucial question in the debate is if the new legal status of the rivers will really help to save them from devastation, or if the waters’ rights and responsibilities will be rather hard to implement in the practice and therefore not bring the changes needed.

The new legal status’ of great, vital rivers in New Zealand, Colombia and India mean that the waters – of course with some help from human representatives – can go to court and enter into contracts. But presumably the most important impact the river’s legal standings will have is political. Giving norms and institutions for the sustainable treatment of nature entrenchment in the legal system forces politicians to act on the constantly postponed issue of river pollution. They simply cannot ignore the urgent problem anymore, not only because they do not want to disappoint their electorates, but because the law dictates it. The legal persons of rivers, therefore, do not only lead to a new form of river management; they also imply that politicians must now work for river rights in the same way they work for human rights, and prioritize the restoration of crucial watercourses just as they prioritize improving the lives of their nations’ citizens.

Rivers have in all times been not only widely considered as sacred but have also been essential to humankind. Flowing through cities, countries, and across continents, being the main water resource in certain regions and providing prerequisites for transportation and industry. Time is running out, and if no radical action is taken rivers such as Whanganui, Atrato, Ganges, and Yamuna may lose their important role for mankind, both environmentally and culturally.

The new thinking and acting around environmental personhood provides some hope on the matter. With the Indian elections coming up in April and May – the world’s most attended ballot ever – it will be interesting to see to what extent the new standings of Ganges and Yamuna will influence the political discussions and the politicians’ priorities. Advocates for giving rivers their own rights argue that the rights of nature are not separated from human rights anymore. It has become more and more obvious during the last decades what impact industry, agriculture, and domestic waste have had on the ecosystems of rivers, and how greatly we humans rely on vital watercourses. Upgrading the legal status of rivers is not just a serious – and promising – attempt to find a solution to the destruction of waters that humanity has caused; it is also a wake-up call. When millions of Indians again take a swim in the Ganges this spring during the festival of Kumbh Mela, they may appreciate the political actions taken recently, not just to protect the river’s ecosystem– but also to allow the Hindu festivities to take place in the future.  

Illustration: Marina Skovgaard Dokken

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