Thursday, 28 September 2017

Legal rights for the Colorado River?

Legal rights for rivers seems to be an idea whose time has come.

This week, Deep Green Resistance filed suit on behalf of the Colorado River, to establish it as a legal person with the ability to sue in court to protect its own interests.

In July, the Siletz River Ecosystem in Oregon, USA, also filed an action to prevent the aerial spraying of pesticides within the river catchment.

Both cases are arguing that granting legal standing to the river will enable it to protect its interests holistically, and proactively. In Colorado, the law suit is an action against the state of Colorado for violating the river's "right to exist, flourish, regenerate, be restored, and naturally evolve".

In Oregon, the lawsuit stems from a local ordinance, which gives the right for local ecosystems and communities to be free from aerially sprayed pesticides.This ordinance means that the river in this case is one of the defendants, as the plaintiffs attempt to assert their right to apply pesticides. The court documents state that the right to be "free from toxic tresspass" is "essential for nature - the physical world including human beings - to survive and thrive".

So far, US courts have been consistently unwilling to embrace legal rights for nature. However, in 2017, there is an emerging transnational jurisprudence supporting the creation of legal rights for rivers, as evidenced by legislation in New Zealand and the Constitutional Court ruling in Colombia (which specifically referenced the New Zealand examples). In India, the ruling of the High Court which granted legal personality to the Ganges and Yamuna Rivers has been stayed by the Supreme Court, pending the outcome of an appeal.

At the recent 20th International Riversymposium in Brisbane, Australia, a plenary session was devoted to the discussion of legal rights for rivers, with speakers from the Whanganui River in New Zealand, and Western Australia, where the concept is being developed by the Madjulla people for the Mardoowarra River.

Later this year, in October, the first US rights for nature symposium will be convened in New Orleans.

Will this growing momentum be enough to tip the balance in the US courts?

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