A New Zealand River Has Human Rights. Now Will Modern Law Come to Its Senses?

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Our System of law has the rights issue exactly backward. But humanity is slowly reawakening to the simple logic that Mother Earth’s rights must come before human rights.

(Originally published by YES! Magazine, July 7, 2017)

It was a stunning breakthrough in a rights issue that could be a crucial step toward ensuring a human future. In March 2017, New Zealand passed the Te Awa Tupua Bill making New Zealand’s Whanganui river a legal living person. It became the first river in the world to hold the same legal rights, responsibilities, and liabilities as a human person. For the Maori people of New Zealand, it was an historic victory in a 140-year struggle to gain recognition of the river as an ancestor of the tribe. And it quickly had a major consequence far beyond New Zealand’s borders.

Only two weeks later, citing the New Zealand law as precedent, a court in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand declared the Ganges River and its main tributary, the Yamuna River, to have the status of living human entities. Henceforth, polluting or damaging these rivers will be a legal equivalent to harming a person.

I learned of New Zealand’s breakthrough from my longtime friend and colleague Shannon Biggs, Executive Director of Movement Rights, and co-founder of the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature. Shannon and her Movement Rights co-founder Pennie Opal Plant traveled to New Zealand last November as guests of New Zealand’s original people, the Maori, to learn and share with the world the lessons of their historic victory. Shannon further elaborates those lessons in her report published in Earth Island Journal.

Humanity is slowly reawakening to the essential truth that nature, the living Earth—or as many indigenous peoples prefer—our Earth Mother— is the source of our human existence and essential to our nurture. It is simple logic that Her needs must come before ours. That in turn implies that Earth’s rights must come even before human rights.

Modern law has the rights issue exactly backward.

This logic has sweeping implications for a modern system of law that gives corporations more rights than people and nature no rights at all. It is self-evident that just as our human existence depends on the health and well-being of a living Earth, the existence of corporations depends on the health and well-being of human society. At its foundation, modern law has the rights issue exactly backward.

Significant as New Zealand’s action is, it represents only a first step in an essential rethinking and restructuring of a system of law crafted by the rulers of an Imperial Civilization to secure their personal power and privilege. The system is ill suited to the needs of an Ecological Civilization expected to meet the needs of all in a balanced co-productive relationship with our living Earth Mother.

We organized around the rivers, forests, and prairies.

In our transition from Imperial to Ecological Civilization, we have much to learn from indigenous peoples as humanity’s elders—keepers of our human memory of a time when we all saw ourselves as part of nature. Earth cared for us and we cared for her. We organized around tribal territories that defined the rivers, streams, forests, and prairies on which we depended for our means of living and which we honored as our ancestors—a concept remarkably consonant with our modern scientific understanding of evolution. No individual had an exclusive claim or right to destroy or to sell a portion of that territory in disregard of the present or future needs of others.

Living with nature came easily and naturally to humans when our dependence on her was inescapably self-evident. Now, despite our technological sophistication, the fact we are reaching the limits of Earth’s capacity, makes our dependence on her once again self-evident.

The anomalies created by declaring a river to be a living person with all the rights, responsibilities, and liabilities thereof forces us to rethink and revise the foundational principles of modern law. What is the river’s liability to a person whose lands it floods or the swimmer it drowns? How are the seemingly intractable conflicts between legally proclaimed rights of nature, humans, and corporations to be resolved?

My thanks to the Maori people who persevered through a 140-year struggle to compel us all to address these essential questions.

2017-07-07T15:28:00+00:00 July 7th, 2017|Categories: YES! Column|