Rivers Are People, Too

Rivers Are People, Too

S&H’s spiritual activist, Celia Alario, on the rights of nature.

One of my favorite bumper stickers reads “Nature Bats Last.” And in what could end up being a game changer here in the bottom of the ninth inning for life on Earth, Nature herself got a big boost of batting power in a recent New Zealand court decision.

Thanks to the hard work of the Iwi (the local Maori people) and their legal team, the court declared something many of us already believe: that a river deserves to be recognized as Te Awa Tupua, an “integrated, living whole.”

The decision gives the Whanganui River a legal voice, a legal identity, and—get this—all the rights of a person when it comes to the law. This means the rights and interests of the river can be fought for and defended in a court of law, with the river holding actual legal standing, or the right to bring a lawsuit based upon its stake in the outcome. So issues that, until now, have been mostly debated as ethical or spiritual considerations change venue to the powerful arena of the law.

Imagine—rivers and other precious wild places retaining a hard-charging lawyer and fighting in court against an unsustainable development project or threats of toxic pollution with the playing field finally leveled.

I was a teenager when I first heard this quote from 20th-century scientist and humanitarian Albert Schweitzer: “Until we extend the circle of our compassion to all living things, humanity will not know peace.”

His words stuck with me, and I’ve wondered lately if our compassion alone will be enough to create a brighter future. But compassion, some compunction, and the courts may be just the triple threat we need.

Oddly, they call it personhood in court, and it’s the same legal standing extended to business entities via “corporate personhood” in the United States. I don’t believe corporations are people, and who knows, maybe the river would consider “personhood” an insult. Perhaps it would make more sense to call it “nature-hood,” and then as humans we’d be lucky to be granted it!

Either way, I’ve been following this game for a long time, rooting for Earth and its teammates from my cheap bleacher seats. From the campaign by Indigenous leaders to get the Universal Declaration for the Rights of Mother Earth recognized by the United Nations, to the work by folks like environmental lawyer Polly Higgins and her team to make “ecocide” a crime punishable at The Hague, efforts have been under way to even the score.

And now the New Zealand court decision gives me renewed hope for the home team.

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