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Rivers aren’t people — but what if we acted like they were?

The Magpie River and environmental personhood around the world
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What makes a person a person? For example, is it possible for something inanimate to be a person? 

Muteshekau Shipu — also known as the Magpie River, although her name directly translates to “river where the water passes between the square rocky cliffs” — weaves nearly 300 kilometers through the Côte-Nord region of Québec. You can feel mist tinting the air as you sit by her shore and watch paddlers and rafters holding on to bright boats, leaping through whitewater rapids. Downstream, the water turns blue and still, resting for a while before the current picks up again.

To many of us, Muteshekau Shipu might seem more like a something than a someone, yet this river has recently become a person — at least in the eyes of the law.

Muteshekau Shipu is the latest natural feature to be granted environmental personhood, and the first in Canada. Legal personhood is a new approach to understanding humanity’s legal relationship with the non-human world. 

In most places, when rights are ascribed to nature, they’re framed as human rights. Pennsylvania’s constitution, for example, sets out that “the people have a right to clean air, pure water… the preservation of the scenic, historic, and aesthetic values of the environment.”

Environmental personhood goes a step further. It clarifies that environmental beings have intrinsic worth — that they have value beyond just their impact on humanity. It is not that the people have a right to clean air, but that the air has a right to be clean. 

This legal concept is both very new and very old, and it has gaining ground around the world in Ecuador, India, New Zealand, Bangladesh, Colombia, and now Canada.

The roots of environmental personhood

Environmental personhood can be traced to a 1972 paper by Christopher D. Stone titled “Should Trees Have Standing? Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects,” which was cited in a famous US Supreme Court dissent. Stone proposed that environmental beings like trees or rivers should be given intrinsic legal rights, and stood to defend these beings in court. He may not have actually mentioned legal personhood, but his ideas planted the seeds for the development of environmental rights and environmental personhood.

Legal standing, in essence, means the ability to bring a lawsuit forward in court. Normally, if a river is polluted, a person would need to be harmed by that pollution in order to sue the polluter. If no one is harmed except the river, no one will have legal standing, and no one can fight against the polluter in court.

Under Stone’s proposal, the river itself could sue the polluter. Of course, no river can actually walk into a courtroom, but legal personhood offers an avenue for a river to be represented as an independent being. 

Granting distinct rights to non-human entities isn’t a new concept. In Western legal systems, corporations are often considered legal persons — as are some universities, municipalities, and even ships. Just like a corporation or a ship, a river with personhood can have representatives that sue on its behalf.

Any legal person has certain rights. Stone proposed a vast array of possible rights for natural beings, customizable to fit specific situations. For example, a river may have the right to flow freely, while a forest may have the right to maintain its ecosystem’s balance. It is these rights, paired with its legal standing, that could allow a river to protect itself. 

In essence, an environmental person like the Magpie River is legally considered its own being, capable of being wronged and possibly of doing wrong.

Environmental personhood around the world 

Ecuador made one of the most significant choices in favor of environmental rights and legal standing in its 2008 constitution, which said, “all persons, communities, peoples, and nations can call upon public authorities to enforce the rights of nature.” Those rights include nature’s right to be restored, ecosystems’ right to not be destroyed, and animals’ right to not go extinct. 

Indigenous groups in the country such as the National Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador mobilized to include these rights in the constitution. The constitution, however, failed to declare nature as a person. 

New Zealand had no such qualms. After years of debate, the Whanganui River, which flows across the North Island of Aotearoa New Zealand, was declared a full legal person in 2017, recognized under the name Te Awa Tupua — river with ancestral power. The Whanganui River Claims Settlement Act granted the river all rights and powers of a legal person and even established a small office of legal representation for Te Awa Tupua, which acts as the river’s ‘human face.’

On the same day that New Zealand passed the Whanganui River Claims Settlement Act, one of India’s high courts ruled that the Ganges and Yamuna Rivers be considered legal persons. Soon after, the court extended this status to the ecosystem that surrounds the rivers, which includes glaciers, lakes, air, and forests. The court charged various local government officials with the responsibility to act as the ‘human face’ of these rivers and associated landscapes. 

India demonstrates one unforeseen implication of legal personhood: liability of the rivers. One judge later summoned the Ganges River to testify about a certain problem with pollution from a nearby garbage dump — a problem that had begun long before the river was declared a person. Nevertheless, the judge demanded the river take accountability for giving its land away “for construction of a trenching ground.” 

These rulings from India and New Zealand remain some of the clearest examples of legal personhood today, but other countries have taken significant steps toward environmental personhood or environmental rights. Bangladesh’s top court recently granted all rivers legal rights as people, for example, and Colombia’s Supreme Court declared the Amazon River ecosystem to be a “subject of rights.”

The Magpie River’s environmental personhood

In February 2021, the Magpie River joined the growing collection of global environmental persons as the first of its kind in Canada.

This was a local decision made through a joint resolution by The Innu Council of Ekuanitshit and the Minganie Regional County Municipality (RCM). Together, they recognized Muteshekau Shipu’s “right to live, exist and flow,” to maintain its biodiversity, to be free from pollution, and to sue for its rights to be respected. 

The Innu and other First Nations, alongside municipal governments and environmental groups, have fought against industrial development around the river for over a decade. Legal personhood is one step toward winning this battle. As Chief Jean-Charles Piétacho of the Innu Council of Ekuanitshit said, “Designating the river as a legal person was the clearest message we could send… The river protects herself, we protect the river, we’re all protected.”

The resolution established a mechanism for “river guardians.” Appointed by the Minganie RCM and the Innu Council of Ekuanitshit, these guardians would represent the river and protect its rights.

The future of the Magpie River, however, is not yet certain. After all, not every attempt to grant environmental personhood has been successful. 

In 2019, Toledo, Ohio passed a law granting rights to Lake Erie. The city and its residents received the ability to sue on the lake’s behalf. The law, however, was instantly challenged by agricultural company Drewes Farms, and the state of Ohio later joined as co-plaintiff. A district judge sided with the company and the state, and struck down the law as unconstitutionally vague and beyond municipal authority. 

Just as the Magpie River is the first water body in Canada to be recognized as a legal person, Lake Erie was the first one in the US. How the Magpie’s new designation will be received on a federal or provincial level remains unknown.

Impacts of environmental personhood

Environmental personhood is not perfect, and it is still unknown whether these laws and judgements will have a significant effect on the protection of the environment. Are they aspirational, or will they result in concrete action? Without an established framework, many environmental personhood provisions have been criticized as overly vague, with possible consequences for vulnerable communities that rely on the land. Considering this backdrop, it is difficult to predict the future of the Magpie River.

Still, there is a clear central value to environmental personhood and environmental rights. For centuries, humans — particularly in the Western world — have treated the environment as if it is nothing more than a resource to be exploited or a problem to be conquered. The results of this neglect are clear: we have reached a time of acute environmental crisis. 

Environmental personhood can move our relationship with the natural world in a new direction. Unlike other approaches, it recognizes the non-human environment as having an intrinsic value beyond its use to us as a resource. It recognizes and upholds worldviews that have been long ignored by the western legal system — worldviews that include a river as someone instead of something, intrinsically valued as a being and not as a resource.

In an interview with The Varsity, Stephen Scharper, professor of religion, ethics, and the environment at U of T, connected environmental personhood to the broader tradition of earth jurisprudence. This philosophical tradition emerged from historian and geologian Thomas Berry’s efforts to protect ecosystems in a way that recognizes their profound importance, but is also practical within a Western legal framework. As Scharper noted, Berry rooted these efforts in “his understanding that the universe is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.” In this sense, Scharper pointed out, “there is nothing that is inanimate.”

The Anishinaabe ecologist Robin Wall Kimmerer explores this idea in her book Braiding Sweetgrass. Kimmerer describes the natural world as a place of beings instead of a place of objects.

In one chapter, Kimmerer describes her experience with “the grammar of animacy” as she worked to learn Bodewadmimwin, an Anishinaabe language also known as Potawatomi. In Potawatomi, she explains, nouns and verbs are divided into the animate and the inanimate. The inanimate is restricted to objects made by human hands, like a table — everything else is treated more like a verb. The noun “bay” becomes the verb “to be a bay.” 

At first, Kimmerer struggled to adapt her perspective from English. But she eventually realized that “to be a bay” makes water living and, in a way, gives water personhood. The water could be a bay, a stream, a waterfall, or a river. It is moving and living. In the grammar of animacy, a rock or an apple is not an object, but a being.

Kimmerer argues that the English language affords agency along the lines of ‘human’ and ‘thing.’ “The arrogance of English is that the only way to be animate,” she writes, “to be worthy of respect and moral concern, is to be a human.” 

She challenges readers to inject the grammar of animacy into English: to say “someone came by” when encountering pawprints in the snow, instead of “something”; to call a robin “he” instead of it; and to see the non-human world as a place of beings.

Just as these changes of phrase can integrate a new perspective into the English language, environmental personhood integrates the same perspective into the Western legal system. This, Scharper said, is why “the issue of environmental personhood goes deeper” than efforts to legally protect the environment. 

Indigeneity and environmental personhood

Historically, environmental personhood has been rooted in Indigenous traditions, spiritual traditions, and religious traditions. In New Zealand, the Whanganui River’s personhood was based on Māori legal tradition that recognizes humans and nature as kin. It includes the river as a tupuna, or ancestor, with mana, or spiritual authority or power, and mauri, or life force. 

In India, the Ganges and Yamuna Rivers are worshipped by Hindus, which is in part why the state declared them as distinct living beings. In Ecuador, activists cited the Indigenous concepts of sumac kawsay  — good living — and Pachamama — Mother Earth — as reasons to incorporate environmental rights into their constitution.

In Canada and other settler colonial countries, environmental personhood and environmental rights are poised to play a key role in Indigenous recognition and reconciliation. This is already clear for the Magpie River; Muteshekau Shipu’s personhood was in part founded on Innu beliefs that nature is living and must therefore be respected. 

Environmental personhood is one way to enshrine these environmental values in a Western legal system, but it is far from being the only way. In Ontario, for example, Scharper mentioned that Indigenous peoples and environmental advocates are taking other routes in earth jurisprudence. Here, environmentalists are working to protect sacred spaces in the natural world through the language of freedom of religion. That’s a different approach than legal personhood, but it still acknowledges similar values.

The Magpie River and environmental personhood may not be the be-all and end-all for environmental protection in Canada, but it is a step toward greater protections for the environment and a deeper understanding of our connection to the natural world. And whether or not Muteshekau Shipu is legally recognized as a person, there will always be those who will see it as something and those who will see her as someone. 

We cannot say that the river will flow on regardless of what we think — not when we are the river’s biggest threat. Our perspective matters; the particulars of our legal system matter. This line between someone and something — this personhood — is a chance to keep a river from being dammed, polluted, drained, or lost in some other yet unknown way.

So next time you meet an ant, a tree, or a river, try seeing someone instead of something. Maybe one day, our legal system will consider that non-human entity a person too. After all, our survival depends on them, and their survival depends on us.

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