Friday, 16 June 2017

Legal rights for rivers: what happens next?

In 2017, we have seen four rivers around the world receive the status of legal persons.

In March, the New Zealand government passed legislation that declared the Whanganui River to be a legal person, as part of settling a long-running dispute under the Treaty of Waitangi.

Also in March, the Ganges and Yamuna Rivers in India were given the status of legal persons. The High Court of Uttarakhand (an Indian state) declared that these rivers were to be considered as 'minors' and appointed several key people in the state government to act as guardians.

Then, in May, the Constitutional Court in Colombia ruled that the Rio Atrato also had legal rights of its own, as part of recognising a suite of biocultural rights of the local and indigenous communities who live on and near the river.

After seeing very little in the way of movement in this space since 2010, it is extraordinary and exciting to see these ground-breaking legal decisions creating legal rights for rivers.

But will these new rights help to protect the rivers?

And how does giving legal rights to nature re-shape our own relationship to nature?

My research points to a fundamental shift that happens when nature has legal rights of its own: we start to expect nature to look after itself, and correspondingly, we begin to be less willing to take action to protect it.

This means that these innovative legal experiments in the expansion of legal rights for nature can come with real costs, and using legal rights in this way is unlikely to be a panacea for environmental protection.

It is now time to invest in research and analysis that considers not if nature should have rights, but how those rights can be created and enforced so that environmental outcomes are actually improved.

This week, I have recorded a podcast through the University of Melbourne program Up Close, with Julia Talbot-Jones from ANU, to explore these emerging issues, and start to understand exactly what happens when you create legal rights for nature.

You can listen to the podcast here.

Let me know what you think in the comments, or by tweeting @ezzyod.

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