Environmental Personhood: The Movement Trying To Protect Nature's Rights

Published on August 26th 2019
misty river in the morning
In July, Bangladesh became the first country to grant all of their rivers rights in hopes of protecting them for the future. The decision comes as a landmark ruling to protect the rivers from further degradation from pollution, illegal dredging and human intrusion.

What is 'Environmental Personhood'?

A body of water
Granting an environmental entity legal rights is called 'personhood'. The idea was first highlighted in an essay written by Professor Christopher D. Stone, collected into a 1974 book titled 'Should Trees Have Standing? Toward Legal Rights for Natural Object'.
Stone argued that if an environmental entity is given a 'legal personality,' it cannot be owned and has the right to appear in court.
Across the world, several countries have put a similar version of this law into action. In Toledo, Ohio, Lake Eire has been given rights to protect it. In 2008, Ecuador was the first to proclaim nature's right 'to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles'. Most recently in 2017, New Zealand’s Whanganui River was declared to be a legal person– with arrangements put in place for its management by Government and indigenous communities acting together.

Why is this good?

A close up of a tree
This idea of environmental personhood recognises nature's a right to exist, much like a person. Whilst a river can not go to jail for killing someone, a person can suffer the consequences of causing harm to a natural entity which would result in its disappearance.
It could help protect not just rivers and mountains, but insects and small animals, by ensuring that their natural habitats are protected from harmful chemicals.
Humanity is currently experiencing the sixth mass extinction with over 1,000,000 species currently threatened. Living Law highlights that 'protecting natural environments is a question of survival, not preference'. The Scottish law firm is a passionate advocate for the 'nature rights' movement in the UK.
They argue that facing such an environmental catastrophe it's in everyone's interest to enforce the rights of nature in legislation as well as in judicial rulings

Okay, why don't we give rights to all rivers and lakes then?

A small island in the middle of a body of water
First of all, not everyone is convinced this is the right way forward. Landowners can be reluctant to give up their right to do whatever they please on their property.
And while protecting one part of a natural entity would be possible, many rivers and lakes cross into more than one country. Their protection may be ensured in one territory, but since there are no universal 'nature rights', this cannot be enforced in other countries. In more recent times though, many countries have begun to adopt a system of 'River Basin Management Planning' in line with ecological realities across borders.
A castle on top of a body of water surrounded by trees
Secondly, court procedures are expensive. Even if a great misconduct has been made and a group of people agree that legal action should be taken, a lake is not going to be able to foot the bill of the lawyers, court appearances and endless paperwork.
The monetary responsibility can fall on to whoever is deemed the guardian of the natural entity. It can be anyone from a court-appointed body to the government itself — which may have chosen not to participate in environmentally friendly practices in the past — to nongovernmental organizations.
In Ecuador, the Global Alliance for Rights of Nature and others sued a construction company trying to build a road across the Vilcabamba River and initially won in court. When the construction company didn't comply with the ruling, the NGO could not afford to run another case.

What's happening in the UK?

A close up of a lush green hillside with Cadair Idris in the background
'Internationally there is a huge movement that's growing in this area' Susan D. Shaw founder of Living Law told me. 'There is not a huge amount of coverage that's been done in this area in the UK'.
Dr Shaw points out that the Green Party has included a nature rights clause in their manifesto, namely:
  • 'Guarantee strong protections for our natural environment and oceans, especially for the Green Belt, National Parks, SSSIs and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty – and including a longterm 25-year target for biodiversity, water and air quality.'
  • 'Create a new environmental regulator and court to effectively monitor and enforce environmental law - this would include new statutory requirements for updates to (and debates in) Parliament on the state of nature and biodiversity.'
But there is still a lot of work to be done in terms of building an understanding of nature rights, Shaw says. 'There is a growing interest in trying to work with different disciplines and academic circles.'
Shaw and the Living Law firm hopes that by promoting conversation both in public and in the Parliament, they can bring the issue to the forefront and make legal changes in the near future - before it's too late.
You can watch a video on the story of Lake Eire here:
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