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Granting legal ‘personhood’ to nature



  May 11, 2024

Granting legal ‘personhood’ to nature



What is the concept of granting legal ‘personhood’ to nature? 

The concept of granting legal ‘personhood’ to nature is an emerging idea that focuses on giving legal rights to nature. This concept allows persons to take legal action on behalf of natural ecosystems, as opposed to on behalf of people affected by environmental degradation. Ecosystems can become separate entities with their own agency, similar to other non-human entities such as charitable trusts and organizations.

Which countries have granted legal ‘personhood’ to nature? 

Ecuador was the first country to enshrine rights of nature in its 2008 constitution. Since then, a growing number of countries have followed in awarding rights of nature. This includes Aotearoa New Zealand, where legal personhood was granted to the Whanganui River, the former national park Te Urewera, and soon the Taranaki maunga.India to Narmada and Ganga and all natural entities. 

Can the movement of granting legal ‘personhood’ to nature help stem the loss of biodiversity? 

There is no easy answer to this question. Many rights-of-nature examples have emerged because current systems were not enough to protect nature from continued economic pressure from development. One of the key features of well-designed rights-of-nature frameworks lies in defining who is ultimately liable, and what for.

What are some examples of rights-of-nature frameworks? 

Examples of rights-of-nature frameworks include the Whanganui River in New Zealand, which was itself declared a legal person, and the Victorian Environmental Water Holder in Australia, an independent statutory body established as a legal person that manages water entitlements to improve the health of rivers and wetlands.

What are the challenges in granting legal ‘personhood’ to nature? 

One of the challenges in granting legal ‘personhood’ to nature is the issue of liability. For example, in the US, farming operations challenged the Lake Erie Bill of Rights, which granted Lake Erie the right to “exist, flourish and naturally evolve”, arguing that the bill was too vague and would expose them to liability from fertiliser runoff. In India, the Ganges and Yamuna rivers were granted living-person status, but the decision was challenged on the grounds of uncertainty about who the custodians are and who would be liable to pay damage to the families of those who drowned in the rivers


The Ganga and Narmada rivers were granted the status of legal persons or "living entities" by the Uttarakhand High Court in 2017 and the Madhya Pradesh High Court in 2019, respectively. This means that the rivers have been recognized as entities with inherent rights, similar to those of humans. As legal persons, the Ganga and Narmada rivers have the right to: - Be protected and conserved - Have their pollution and degradation prevented - Have their natural flow and ecosystem maintained - Be represented by a legal guardian or custodian This legal status is aimed at ensuring the long-term conservation and protection of these sacred and ecologically significant rivers, and to hold individuals and organizations accountable for any harm caused to them.


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