Can human rights save Mother Nature?

Mother Nature Network
April 10th, 2017
By: Sidney Stevens

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.”

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.

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.

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.

Read more at Mother Nature Network.