This year, the Whanganui River, in New Zealand, became the first in the world to be granted the same legal rights as a person. Equally vital, a court in northern India has given the sacred Ganges and Yamuna rivers, as well as several glaciers, the legal status of “living human entities” to help in the preservation and conservation of the country’s highly polluted waterways, thus allowing polluters to be sued.
These decisions are variants of “rights of nature” measures that date back to the 1970s. More than three dozen U.S. localities have ordinances ascribing varying types of rights to nature or to specific natural objects.
In America, rights of nature activism usually takes the form of ballot initiatives that emerge to contest the power of corporations wherever local natural resources are seen as being threatened. The first such ordinance was passed in 2006, when Tamaqua Borough, in Pennsylvania, sought to protect the town’s drinking water from the nearby dumping of sewage sludge.
More recently, an ordinance from the Boulder (Colorado) County Protectors, with assistance from the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, asserting the “right to a healthy climate,” was recognized as a federal constitutional right by Judge Ann Aiken, of the U.S. District Court in Oregon.