Rivers Are People, My Friend

In his dissent to Sierra Club v. Morton, Justice Douglas stated, ???The river as plaintiff speaks for the ecological unit of life that is part of it. Those people who have a meaningful relation to that body of water. . . must be able to speak for the values which the river represents and which are threatened with destruction.??? Sierra Club v. Morton, 405 U.S. 727, 743 (1972) (arguing that environmental issues should be allowed to be litigated ???in the name of the inanimate object about to be despoiled, defaced, or invaded.???). Chapter Seven of Ecuador???s 2008 constitution (English translation) conferred rights to nature: ???Nature. . . has the right to integral respect for its existence and for the maintenance and regeneration of its life cycles, structure, functions and evolutionary processes.??? Moreover, ???[p]ersons, communities, peoples, and nations shall have the right to benefit from the environment and the natural wealth enabling them to enjoy the good way of living.???

Ecuador???s constitution not only gave rights to Nature itself, but also established ???The right to live in a healthy environment that is ecologically balanced, pollution-free and in harmony with nature,??? Article 66 Section 27. Furthermore, it created extensive rights of Indigenous peoples and communities, including environmental rights. Article 57. An article from the Guardian UK dated September 24, 2008, one week before the constitution was voted on, reported that the origins for this legal push ???lie in Ecuador???s growing disillusionment with foreign multinationals??? that ???have exploited its natural resources and left little but pollution and poverty.???

New Zealand recently took a similarly significant step toward what Justice Douglas suggested. While we in the United States debate and protest about corporations being bestowed the rights of people in the wake of the Citizens United decision, the New Zealand government entered an agreement with the Whanganui iwi to grant the Whanganui River the same legal rights as a person. This decision gives the river legal personhood ???in the same way a company is, which will give it rights and interests.??? The government and the iwi will jointly protect the river as legal custodians after what a long battle between the two groups. Exact details are still being developed.

Both Ecuador???s constitution and New Zealand???s river protections not only are important from the standpoint of environmentalism, but also environmental justice. The New Zealand/Whanganui iwi agreement seeks to respect the desires and beliefs of the iwi. Meanwhile, Ecuador???s constitution not only establishes legal rights for Nature itself, but also strong protections for the indigenous peoples. It is important to remember that in the United States, the rights of Native Americans have been continually trampled upon in the historic and still on-going scramble for land and resource access. Similar situations may be seen throughout the world as with the embattled Kachin people in Burma, the occupied Tibetans in China, and the displaced Darfuris in Sudan. The Whanganui agreement and the Ecuadorian constitution are perhaps reminders that rights of Nature and human rights are quite interwoven.

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