I am inspired and excited to report on environmental concept, referred to as “Personhood”. To quote Claire Parish’s article in The Varsity (University of Toronto’s Student Newspaper), “Rivers aren’t people…but what if we acted like they were?”
What makes a person? For example, is it possible for something inanimate to be a person? Environmental personhood clarifies that environmental beings have intrinsic worth, that they have value beyond just their impact on humanity. It is not that people have a right to clean air, but that the air has a right to be clean. The legal concept is both very new and very old, and is rapidly gaining ground around the world: Ecuador, Colombia, India, New Zealand, Bangladesh, Canada, Switzerland, Colorado and a few other states in the U.S. Colorado’s Uncompahgre River has a legal Personhood Resolution, flowing with legal rights through several towns without the potential worries of being polluted or dammed. The legal challenges can be and are difficult but the above-named countries have had great successes.
Environmental personhood can be traced to a 1972 paper by Professor Christopher D. Stone, titled “Should trees have standing?” Stone proposed that environmental beings like trees or rivers should be given intrinsic legal rights and stood to defend these beings in court. He may not have mentioned legal personhood but his ideas planted the seeds for the development of environmental rights and environmental personhood. What if legal personhood included plants, rivers, watersheds, forests and our planet?
If a river is polluted, it could sue the polluter by being represented as an independent being. Giving rights to non-humans is not new. Corporations, ships, a river with person-hood can have representatives to sue on its behalf. Stone suggested many possible rights for natural beings. His examples: A river may have the right to flow freely; a forest may have the right to maintain its ecosystem’s balance. These rights and its legal standing could allow a river to protect itself. Otherwise, trout, frogs, mayflies and water itself does not get a say while water is pushed, pulled, dammed or drained. So, next time you meet an ant, a tree or a river, try seeing someone instead of something. Maybe one day our legal system will consider that non-human entity a person too. After all, our survival depends on them and their survival depends on us.
In 1972, a court case, Sierra Club vs Morton is remembered for Justice William Douglas’s dissenting opinion contended that different environmental issues should have a “locus standi”, (the right to stand before the court of law) for their own protection and preservation. He believed people who share a purposeful relationship with any environmental body should have locus standi, the right to bring a legal action to a court of law to defend the environmental body and its values. Justice Douglas argued that since inanimate objects like ships and corporations were already recognized as an acceptable adversary for many adjudicatory processes, he contended that by granting environment a standing to be heard would bring better support of ecological balance and preservation.
Legislation across the world, advocating for certain rights of nature, granting legal personality to flora and fauna and other environmental elements, are to the credit of Justice Douglas. This is a welcome change from the usual legal viewpoint which maintains an anthropocentric view of nature.
A few examples of Personhood progress:
Ecuador wrote a new constitution in favor of environmental rights and legal standing, stating “all persons, communities, peoples and nations can call upon public authorities to enforce the rights of nature”.
New Zealand, after years of debate, the Whanganui River which flows across the North Island of Aotearoa, was declared a full legal person in 2017, recognized under the name Te Awa Tupua – river with ancestral power. The Whanganui River Claims Settlement Act granted the river all rights and power of a legal person and established small office of legal representation for Te Awa Tupua, which acts as the river’s human face.
India, on the same day as New Zealand passed the Settlement Act, one of India’s high courts ruled that the Ganges and Yamuna Rivers be considered legal persons. Soon, the court extended this status to the ecosystem that surrounds the rivers, which includes glaciers, lakes, air and forests. The court charged local government officials with the responsibility to act as the “human face” of these rivers and associated landscapes. One unforeseen problem of legal personhood: liability of the rivers. A judge summoned the Ganges River to testify about a certain problem with pollution from a nearby garbage dump a problem that began long before the river was declared a person. The judge demanded the river be accountable for giving it’s land away for construction of a dump.
Bangladesh’s top court recently granted all rivers legal rights as people, for example, and Colombia’s Supreme Court declared the Amazon River Ecosystem to be a “subject of rights”.
Canada’s Magpie River, also known as Muteshekau Shipu, in 2021, joined the growing collection of global environmental persons, the first of it’s kind in Canada. This was a joint resolution by the Innu Council of Ekuanitshit and the Minganie Regional County Municipality. Together they recognized the Magpie River’s right to live, exist and flow, to maintain its biodiversity, to be free from pollution and to sue for its rights to be respected. The Innu and other First Nations, municipal governments and environmental groups have fought against industrial development around the river for more than a decade. Legal personhood is one way to win this battle. Chief Jean-Charles Pietacho of the Innu Council of Ekuanitshit, “designating the river as a legal person was the clearest message we could send…The river protects herself, we protect the river, we’re all protected.” Appointed river guardians would represent the river and protect it’s rights.
Impacts of environmental personhood: It is still unknown whether these laws and judgements will have a significant effect on the protection of the environment.
My sincere thanks to all the authors of articles from which I quoted the concepts belonging to personhood . It seems that endless scientific research on this topic is alive and well. The authors covering this discussion include:
Michael Booth, Uncompahgre River November 2021
Breanna Draxler, Yes February 2022
Sanket Khandelwal, Jurist Guest Columnist, Student Commentary, Recent Developments & The Road Ahead April 2020
Claire Parish, Varsity, University of Toronto’s Student Newspaper November 2021C
Cassandra Roxburgh, Non-profit Quarterly March 2022
Ashley Westerman, Varsity August 2019