Natural features that have the status of “legal person” for protection
Scientific evidence shows that the global environmental crisis is accelerating, and environmental protection laws have failed to reverse that trend. The movement for the protection of nature as a right claims that existing laws regulate rather than stop the destruction of the natural world. Instead of gradually reforming such laws, a growing number of legislative bodies around the world recognize the rights of nature, although this step does not fully guarantee the safety of natural monuments.
In Quebec (Canada), the Magpie River, which is about 300 kilometers long, is threatened by various threats caused by the construction of a new dam for the production of electricity. Despite efforts to protect the river, local communities fear that this project will cause major damage to the river’s ecosystem. Therefore, during the last year, local committees and municipalities gave the Magbi River the status of “legal entity”, in order to provide the greatest degree of certainty about the river’s future. This procedure is the first of its kind in Canada.
And last September, the Spanish Senate approved a bill guaranteeing personal rights for the Mar Menor lake, located in eastern Spain. The salt lake, the largest in Europe, has been damaged by algae blooms fueled by fertilizers collected in the drains of nearby farmland. This pollution causes great losses in dates, seahorses, crabs and other marine life, with great damage to the tourism sector.
The new law does not consider the lake and its basin completely human, but gives the ecosystem a legal right to exist, to develop normally and to recover. Like any legal entity, the lake has legal guardians, including a scientific committee that will give lake advocates a new voice.
While the Mar Menor lake is the first ecosystem in Europe to be granted such rights, this approach to nature conservation has gained popularity worldwide over the past decade. For example, the Ganges and every river in Bangladesh have been given legal personality status since 2019, and elsewhere the concepts of some indigenous communities have helped push this direction.
Many see the most prominent success story in this regard as New Zealand’s Whanganui River, which was given legal rights by an Act of Parliament in 2017. Like everyone else, river custodians can bring legal claims, enter into contracts and take possession of property. In this case, the aim was not to stop pollution, but to incorporate the Māori (indigenous people of New Zealand) relationship with nature into Western law.
Giving legal rights to non-humans is not in itself revolutionary or unusual. Although moral considerations often influence the development of legal rights, and vice versa, legal rights need not have a moral basis. The law can recognize the rights of all types of subjects, if there are reasons for this, for example, companies, trade unions and states that are legal entities with rights and duties established by law. In practice, the legal system has no difficulty in separating non-human rights.
Rights of nature offer advantages that other forms of legal environmental protection lack. For example, human rights to live in a healthy environment will not protect species whose existence is incompatible with human activities. Conservation laws, such as laws protecting endangered species, can provide protection to species, but do not grant them the right to exist, so such protection can be removed at any time at the whim of the legislature.
If the rights of living species are instead recognized as legal subjects, representatives of the species can seek compensation when they are harmed, even when they are not expressly protected by regulations and when their needs conflict with human needs. This can be interpreted as an attempt by one interest group (humans) to impose their will on others (species). As with other forms of law, natural rights can lead to remedies when regulations fail to address grievances.
Attempts to defend the rights of nature through the legal system have so far yielded only limited results. Ecuador and Bolivia have played a leading role in recognizing the right to nature, but neither has succeeded in slowing down the degradation of their environments. Although some court decisions were based on the rights of nature and resulted in positive results for the environment, environmentally harmful policies in the two countries did not stop.
On the other hand, some attempts to recognize the rights of nature have not escaped legal challenges. For example, a local law passed by the city of Grant Township in the US state of Pennsylvania, which recognizes the rights of natural communities and ecosystems to exist, thrive and develop naturally, is considered preemptive of state laws and a violation of corporate rights. This example reinforces fears of using the right to nature as an excuse to pursue other interests under the guise of nature protection.
Another problem with giving legal subject status to natural features and communities of species is how to adjudicate conflicts between rights to nature, corporate rights and interests, or even human rights. This problem is a true indicator of the effectiveness of the protection of the rights of nature.
Although rights to nature do not usually aim to stop all human activities, they do seek to make the most environmentally destructive activities illegal from a legal point of view. For example, if herds of oryx have a right to their natural habitat, courts can declare illegal the appropriation of their habitat and overgrazing on their territory, even if this is not expressly prohibited by applicable environmental laws.
Adjudicating conflicts between natural rights and human activities will remain controversial because they are so widespread and systemic. But it is clear that nature loses more when it has no rights over the interests of people and companies, and giving nature some of its rights can help reduce losses.