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Should rivers have legal rights?

Caption: In 2019, the Yurok Tribe granted personhood to Northern California’s Klamath River, giving the waterway the same legal rights as a human, — at least under tribal law. Credit: Bob Wick, BLM, FlickrCC.

Dear EarthTalk: Should rivers be given the same legal rights as people in order to protect them? — Phyllis T., New Haven, CT

The river flows from the mountain to the sea. I am the river. The river is me.”
—Māori proverb from the Whanganui iwi (tribe)

Native groups, environmental organizations, local residents, and all those who rely on a river’s health know the importance of protecting them. One idea that has been proposed in order to address this is giving rivers the same legal rights as people in courts. This idea came to fruition because of the concept of ‘environmental personhood’ and its past applications on other non-human elements of nature.

Environmental personhood is a legal concept that endows different environmental entities with the same status as a person in court, and is being used by many groups to protect natural resources in the modern world. Indigenous groups have long recognized nature as a “subject with personhood deserving of protection and respect, rather than … as a merchandise or commodity over which property rights should be exercised,” says Monti Aguirre of International Rivers. Because of this, many native groups have been at the forefront of global efforts to petition courts and governments for environmental personhood for rivers.

In New Zealand, the Te Awa Tupua River on the North Island was given the status of legal personhood in 2017 after nine years of negotiations between the former New Zealand attorney general and the Whanganui iwi, or tribe, and other indigenous Māori groups. The law outlines that both the New Zealand court and the Whanganui iwi have joint guardianship over the river. This connects the river legally to the indigenous people who have depended upon and cared for it for over 700 years. The change has impacted both people’s behaviors in the ways that they treat the river and their individual perceptions of the river. 

In 2019, Bangladesh became the first country to grant every one of its rivers environmental personhood. Meanwhile, California’s Yurok Tribe passed a resolution to declare legal personhood for the Klamath River, and a court in India’s Uttarakhand state bestowed the Ganges and Yamuna rivers with legal personhood, too. 

One of the issues that arises in giving rivers similar rights as people, aside from its unpopularity with some local companies and agricultural plots, is the question of who takes responsibility. Suing groups for harming a river is costly and there has been much debate over who should cover the costs. In Ecuador, a number of green groups successfully sued a construction firm to stop it from building a road over the Vilcabamba River, but when the company continued with the project anyway, the groups were unable to afford a second case. Another issue is that some rivers extend across national borders. 

These concerns have stirred doubts about the efficacy of environmental personhood in courts, but there’s no doubt that conversations arising because of the idea are changing the way they view the natural world. Granting rivers the legal rights of humans in court would create a more concrete foundation for the their protection and it would prompt conversation around the conservation of these veins of the Earth.

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