Environmentalism’s Next Frontier: Giving Nature Legal Rights

Ships and corporations have legal standing. Should ecosystems?

Matt Chinworth

In the summer of 2014, officials in Toledo, Ohio, announced that the city’s tap water was no longer safe to drink. A toxic algae bloom caused by fertilizer runoff had poisoned Lake Erie, the primary water source for the area’s half-million residents, sickening more than 100 people. Stores emptied of bottled water within hours. For three days, “it was just total panic,” recalls Markie Miller. “People were fighting over it.”

Miller joined Toledoans for Safe Water, a group of residents who had been trying to convince officials to clean up the lake, to no avail. Then, in late 2015, members of the group attended a presentation put on by the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund about advancing the “rights of nature”—the idea that eco­systems, like humans, have legal rights.

After the presentation, some Toledoans met in a pub and drafted the Lake Erie Bill of Rights. This past February, voters chose to amend the city charter to grant the lake the right to “exist, flourish, and naturally evolve.” The amendment allows any resident to sue governments or businesses that infringe upon the lake’s rights—for example, by polluting it with fertilizer.

Toledo isn’t the only place to recognize the rights of nature. In 2006, Tamaqua Borough, Pennsylvania, passed an ordinance to prohibit corporations from dumping waste sludge into nearby open-pit mines by mandating that any resident could sue to vindicate the “rights of natural communities and ecosystems.” Since then, more than three dozen communities across the United States have adopted similar measures. In 2018, the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, a Native American nation in Minnesota, codified the rights of manoomin, or wild rice, to “flourish, regenerate, and evolve.” As Casey Camp-Horinek, an environmentalist and matriarch of the Ponca Nation in Oklahoma, points out, the rights-of-nature movement “simply recognizes what the indigenous people have always been a part of: the natural cycle of life belonging to all living things, not just humans.”

The White Earth Band of Ojibwe codified the rights of manoomin, or wild rice, to “flourish, regenerate, and evolve.”

Outside the United States, Ecuador wrote the rights of nature into its constitution in 2008. In 2017, a court in India ruled that the Ganges and Yamuna rivers have the same legal standing as people (the ruling was later overturned). The Whanganui, New Zealand’s longest navigable river, has legal standing under a law passed that same year.

Rights-of-nature laws often work by appointing a guardian to advocate for a particular ecosystem or natural feature, much like a parent represents a child’s interests in court. The guardian can sue on the ecosystem’s behalf. If the ecosystem is awarded damages, the money might go into a trust dedicated to funding its restoration. MORE

RELATED:
The Rights of Nature: The Case for a Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth

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