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Should ecosystems have legally enforceable rights

Should ecosystems have legally enforceable rights? It might sound like a ridiculous idea, but a global debate on this is in full swing. The Constitution of Ecuador now recognises rights of nature. Environmental activists have called for a “United Natures” to replace the “United Nations”. And New Zealand has given “personhood” to the Whanganui River to help protect it. 

In the great conflicts about abolition of slavery, child labour or enfranchisement of women, new economically valuable technology played a critical role in converting humanitarian ideals against such oppression into enforceable legal obligations. It did this in large part by replacing the need for manual labour in fields, factories and the home.

The same is likely to prove true for ideals about giving natural ecosystems legally enforceable rights. This is primarily because new technology may replace our need to exploit the environment, allowing us to grant ecosystem rights without fear of economic ruin.

But timing will be crucial. As a result of human exploitation and indifference, our supporting ecosystems are close to collapse; yet calls to legislate “safe” boundaries for planetary “physiological” processes like biodiversity, access to water, land use, atmospheric carbon dioxide, nitrogen, phosphorus and pollution levels are considered economically impractical.

When a river can sue

As a “rightless” object, the environment has few if any legal remedies to protect its interests. Nonetheless, already new governance models are emerging to challenge this understanding.

In August 2012, the New Zealand Government announced it would grant legal standing and personality to the Whanganui River (“Te Awa Tupua”). The decision was part of a settlement with certain Maori tribes, and guardians were appointed under a trust to act in the river’s interests. Te Awa Tupua can now lodge an objection to a mining or hydroelectric dam proposal, initiate proceedings in the Land and Environment Court, and apply for a mandatory injunction requiring remediation of pollution or financial compensation.

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The Conversation