From an environmentalist standpoint, it can be a challenge to apply laws made for humans to the natural world, especially when many of those laws deal with nature solely as property with no inherent legal rights.
Most environmental laws have been crafted to deal with regulating exploitation or protection, but always from the perspective of human requirements or exploitation of resources, land and nature.
But just as the intellectual property rights that were crafted to protect commercial interests have come to be used as a tool to protect indigenous and traditional knowledge from being exploited by commercial interests, so to are laws that surround legal personhood – such as those that protect the interests of companies and other legal entities – being used to redefine the natural world.
The high court in the north Indian state of Uttarakhand has handed down a ruling that designates the River Ganges as a legal person. This designation was then extended to the River Yamuna, as well as the rivers’ respective source glaciers, Gangotri and Yamunotri, as well as other natural landscapes such as lakes, meadows, jungles, forests, wetlands, grasslands, springs, waterfalls, and air.
This process took place first in New Zealand with the Te Urewera, an area of forested hills in the north-east that used to be a national park, which became a person for legal purposes in 2014, and the Whanganui River, the country’s third largest, in March 2017.
There have long been cultural and religious beliefs that respect natural elements as gods, deities, living beings worthy of the same respect as any other living creature.
The use of Western-based jurisprudence in this way leverages the human language of ownership by bestowing the fundamental rights we articulate for legal entities upon elements of nature that cannot speak for themselves in a court of law.
It means that, for example, legal action against a factory polluting a river doesn’t require humans to have been harmed or property to have been damaged in order for a river to be considered injured by pollution. The fact that the river is considered invested with fundamental rights means action can be taken on behalf of the river itself.
It’s a keen strategy, and one that could be very promising. Some have been saying that the Ganges is now considered a person, with all attendant rights. Considering what we humans do to one another, even within the law, this might not be the highest achievement.
But the Ganges and the Yamuna, their sources, the Whanganui River and other ‘persons’ of nature might just be more like something the law consistently protected with more reliability than it has individual people: They are like a corporation or company, legal entities our jurisprudence systems take very good care of around the world.