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Old ‘legal person’ river

Granting rights to nature only grants power to self-appointed guardians

Old ‘legal person’ river

Mouth of the Atrato River to the Caribbean Sea (Juanillo1970/Shutterstock)

Two months ago our electric co-op magazine reported on the efforts of volunteer linemen from Missouri to bring electric power to a remote village in the Bolivian Andes. It was no small effort. At 13,000 feet, with no auxiliary power, the volunteers set poles and strung lines while willing villagers dug placement holes by hand and helped lift heavy cables. All received their reward when a single bulb washed the village leader’s home with light. For the people of Chapasirca, life is brighter now.

For some other people, perhaps an environmental activist scrolling through before and after pictures on her laptop, the stark beauty of the Andes might now be scarred by ugly poles and power lines. What right have men to meddle with nature? Or to put it another way, does nature have a right to be left alone?

Last month, the Constitutional Court of Colombia granted “personhood” to the Atrato River, with the right to be protected, preserved, and restored by the state, with representatives chosen from the people and the government to speak for it. That’s worthy of note, but the Atrato is actually the fourth river or river system to receive legal standing in court.

The first was the Vilcabamba in Ecuador (2008), where a judge established nature’s right “to exist, to be maintained and to the regeneration of its vital cycles, structures and functions.” A Maori tribe in New Zealand won its case for the Whanganui River last year when the river was declared an “entity in its own right” and an “ancestor” of the Maoris with two court-appointed guardians. That same year, the Uttarakhand High Court in India declared the Ganges River and its tributary, the Yamuna, as legal entities entitled to bring suit.

Granting personhood to geographical features isn’t so far-fetched, argues Lidia Cano Pecharroman in a paper published by the Earth Institute at Columbia. It wasn’t long ago that children, women, and blacks were denied legal standing in America. “As opposed to the idea that rights are a set of timeless and immutable values that already exist, instead rights constitute an intricate system of relationships that keep evolving.” Most reasonable people agree that valuable resources and features should not be willfully polluted and spoiled, but “it is not until nature is recognized as holding certain rights that we will realize that nature is deserving of a chance to speak for itself”—just as corporations, also defined as “persons,” can appoint individual representatives to speak for them.

Rivers are the source of boundaries, battles, and ballads, the bloodstream of a nation: vital to early human flourishing, but not human.

Not to be outdone, the Earth Law Center (self-described as “a global force of advocates for the rights of nature”) issued a draft of the Universal Declaration of River Rights on its website. The document defines a right to flow, to feed and be fed, and to perform essential functions—making a river sound something like an office manager. Fresh from triumphs in India and South/Central America, the ELC and other environmental groups are searching for new streams to conquer—that is, adjudicate.

Rivers form the front line of environmental activism because they were the front line of civilization. Human culture first developed and thrived along their banks. They are the source of boundaries, battles, and ballads, the bloodstream of a nation: vital to early human flourishing, but not human. That’s the distinction advocates miss: Rights have expanded to include women, children, and minorities because all of those are humans. Corporations can be understood as persons because they are made up of persons. Nonhuman entities should be protected, but they can only be protected by humans. That’s our calling: to take care of Earth, not to referee between ourselves and nonhuman entities over competing claims.

God-given rights are indeed “timeless and immutable,” and humanity rises to the responsibility—at least sometimes. But rights granted by men are arbitrary and uncertain, and humanity sinks under the domination of a few. If a mountain receives legal personhood, who decides if the mountain’s right not to be defaced trumps a villager’s right to power? The self-appointed guardians, that’s who: Big Brother disguised as Mother Earth.


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  • RC
    Posted: Tue, 05/15/2018 11:57 am

    When a volcano explodes it creates and lot of ugly defacing of the land scape. (look at pictures of Mount Saint Helens from around 1980).  Who would these self-appointed guardians sue for that damage to nature?  Since beauty is in the eye of the beholder, how can anyone define “defacing” of any kind, as better or worse than it was before?  I grow weary of humans pretending they are God.