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What if Rivers Could Sue?

Date: 30-Mar-17
Author: Laura Chalk

India's sacred rivers now have human rights. Photo by Piyal Adhikary © Piyal Adhikary via Quartz

India's sacred rivers now have human rights. Photo by Piyal Adhikary

What if trees could sue? A compelling yet seemingly farcical question posed by New Philosopher magazine in a recent edition. It refers to the damage that is being inflicted upon the natural world, and the difficulty in stopping it.

This month, three rivers have been granted the same legal status as human beings for the first time in history, which could set a precedent for other ecosystems to be given the right to safety and protection. 

The Whanganui River begins amid the volcanic mountains of New Zealand's North Island. The river is revered as an ancestor by the Maori people, and the petitioning for its recognition as a living entity began 140 years ago.

Crowds erupted in cheers and tears on March 15, when parliament announced the river would be bestowed its own legal identity, with the rights and liabilities of a person. The Whanganui Treaty settlement brought the longest-running litigation in the country's history to an end.

Gerrard Albert, the lead negotiator for the Whanganui iwi [tribe] explained in a Guardian article, "We have fought to find an approximation in law so that all others can understand that from our perspective, treating the river as a living entity is the correct way to approach it; as an indivisible whole, instead of the traditional model of ownership and management." 

The shift in perspective is one that could prove beneficial for worldwide adoption. Natural resources have traditionally been viewed as something humans can exploit and the line between use and abuse is constantly being traversed.

The high court in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand was quick to follow suit. The Ganges River is considered sacred by more than 1 billion Indians and it, along with its main tributary the Yamuna, has become the first non-human entity in India to be granted the same legal rights as humans.

The move has been welcomed by environmentalists, who believe this ruling can help to clean up the rivers, both of which are heavily polluted.

According to Supreme Court Advocate Nipun Saxena, this judgment "aligns religious overtures with ecological balance." In the case of the Whanganui River ruling, it is an example of indigenous rights and the rights of the natural world being honoured in a joint acknowledgement of their value and legitimate claims to protection. 

Details of how these decisions will be enforced are still being ironed out. In both cases, guardians of the rivers have been appointed to oversee this new level of protection afforded to the water entities.

This is a new and exciting step forward in the recognition of nature's value and efforts to protect it for generations to come. 

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  1. India Today
  2. Quartz 
  3. Hindustan Times
  4. The Guardian 
  5. The Guardian  
  6. Sydney Morning Herald 
  7. New Philosopher, edition 14



Laura                                             Chalk
Author: Laura Chalk

Laura joined Planet Ark in 2016. She has a wealth of knowledge and experience having travelled the world and a background in teaching English as a second language among other things.

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