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Governments: Glaciers and Rivers are Legal Persons and Have Rights

By Jan Lee

Does a river have rights in court? Is it entitled to fair representation if it can’t speak on its own behalf? Do receding glaciers have a voice when they're harmed?

According to the governments of India and New Zealand, they do. Last month, in three unusual rulings, the federal government of New Zealand and the high court of the state of Uttarakhand, India, ruled in favor of recognizing specific rivers as legal persons. Glaciers, impacted by global warming and vital to India’s own sustainability, the courts rule, have the same protections.

The three rulings took place within days of each other, with the New Zealand government announcing on March 15 that it would recognize a petition by the Māori tribe of Whanganui to have a river of the same name recognized as their kin. The step will allow the river to have legal representation in court, much like a minor would have in cases of legal debate.

To the tribe, however, the new status was more than a legal recognition of their right to protect the river against abuse. It was also a matter of recognizing the river's true relationship to the Maori tribe’s existence.

“The reason we have taken this approach is because we consider the river an ancestor and always have,” Gerrard Albert, the tribe’s lead negotiator, explained. "[From] our perspective treating the river as a living entity is the correct way to approach it.”

As far as New Zealand’s courts are concerned, the new status means the river will now be entitled to representation and will have a voice much like a minor has when represented by a parent or guardian.

The ruling also has profound implications in cases of abuse or pollution, said Chris Finlayson, the minister who oversees Whanganui Tribe negotiations. “[The river] Te Awa Tupua will have its own legal identity with all the corresponding rights, duties and liabilities of a legal person.”

When it comes to India’s two historic rivers, the Ganga (Ganges in English) and its sister, the Yamuna and Himalayan glaciers that sustain the country’s water source, the courts’ decisions were triggered by the recognition that the two rivers and two glaciers are now in a perilous state of ecological decline from human activity. And humans are not only threatening the viability of its “sacred rivers," but potentially the future of India as a nation.

In the first instance, the high court decided that while the two rivers have an indispensable role in the daily workings of city and industry, they also have cultural and spiritual significance and deserve legal recognition.

“The rivers have provided both physical and spiritual sustenance to all of us from time immemorial," the court wrote in its ruling. "Rivers Ganga and Yamuna have spiritual and physical sustenance. They support and assist both the life and natural resources and health and well-being of the entire community. Rivers Ganga and Yamuna are breathing, living and sustaining the communities from mountains to sea.”

According to the World Health Organization, 47 percent of India’s irrigated lands rely on the Ganga and a full third of the second most-populous nation on earth reside in the Ganga Basin. The river intersects 50 different cities along its route. In many of those communities, it provides both a water source and a discharge point for domestic and industrial refuse.

Yet the role of these sacred bodies of water is a complex one when it comes to Indian society. More than 790 million gallons of sewage is dumped into the Ganga each day, most of it from household sources. Only a fraction of that sewage is treated before it reaches the river, say researchers aligned with the National Ganga River Basin Project, a World Bank initiative that is assisting India with its effort to revitalize the river. Lack of adequate infrastructure and increasing population is now threatening wildlife, like the Ganga dolphin, whose numbers are declining as a result of the pollution.

The 850-mile-long Yamuna, which is fed by glaciers in the lower Himalayas and supplies irrigation and domestic water throughout its route, threads its way through the country’s capital, Delhi, and is equally important to India’s future.

“Yamuna River passing through 22 km in Delhi was once described as the lifeline of the city,” civil engineering professor Anil Kumar Misra wrote in a 2010 academic report, A River About to Die: Yamuna. “But today it has become one of the dirtiest rivers in the country.” After decades of  industrial pollution, the river is becoming unsustainable, “completely ruling out the possibility for underwater life,” Misra wrote.

A little less than a week after the Ganga and Yamuna decision, the same high court accorded personhood to two Himalayan glaciers that feed into the sacred rivers and have been recorded to be receding at an “alarming rate.”

“The rights of these entities shall be equivalent to the rights of human beings and any injury or harm caused to these bodies shall be treated as injury or harm caused to human beings,” the high court ruled.

The new status doesn’t just protect the rivers and the glaciers, however. It accords “living entity” status to tributaries and those natural features that are nourished by the waters and glaciers, such as India’s meadows, forests and lakes.

These legal moves are part of a growing trend to recognize the “rights” of corporate and environmental entities. The Citizens United v. FEC and Burwell v. Hobby Lobby cases, which gave companies rights to support political causes or make decisions based on religious opinions, were the most recent in America to explore the legal personhood of an entity.

In India, however, recognizing personhood goes back even further, says Economic Times writer Vikram Doctor. An historic case involving whether the caretakers of a Hindu temple had the right to decide the use of the temple’s funds put the ownership squarely in the “hands” of the deity and her temple, recognizing that entities often hold much broader roles and rights in society than the courts are prepared to address.

The question now is whether recognizing India’s glaciers and key rivers as legal persons will actually ensure their sustainability. Some are calling the new rulings a “knee-jerk reaction” that lacks a viable legal roadmap. Be that as it may, establishing nature as a legal living entity, with rights of representation, may be the first real step to addressing culpability and the results of global warming.

Images via Flickr: Jon Rawlinson; Felix Engelhardt; shimriz

Jan Lee headshot

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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