Can we designate nature a legal entity?

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

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A recent court ruling in India has given legs to environment protection advocates and should, we believe, stimulate debate that could prove useful to mankind.Essentially, the court ruled that the Ganges river is a legal “person” in what is really an effort to protect it from pollution, which is a great source of concern as untreated sewage and toxic waste are dumped into the river that serves as a lifeline for more than 500 million people across India.

A similar designation was made in relation to the Yamuna river, as well as the Gangotri and Yamunotri glaciers from where the Ganges and Yamuna rivers originate. The India court ruling follows on a decision in New Zealand granting the Whanganui River priesthood status, the culmination, we are told, of a 140-year legal struggle by the Maori people.

The BBC also reports that, in Ecuador, a new constitution mandates that nature has the right to exist, maintain and regenerate. Basically, what these decisions represent is a radical shift from the view of nature as a resource to one regarding it as an entity with fundamental rights, the BBC points out.

The report also advises that in jurisprudence, nature is considered property with no legal rights because environmental laws only focus on regulating exploitation. However, this is now changing with calls for the inherent rights of nature to be recognised, both in India and around the world, the BBC states.

That is a most interesting development since, as the story points out, the act of designating nature a legal entity opens an avenue for court action to be directly taken on its behalf in any effort to legally enforce environmental protection.

So, for example, as the BBC article states, in the case of the Ganges, environmental advocates would not need to argue in court that polluting the river is harmful to people. Rather, they could make the case that the pollution by itself is violating the river's “right to life”.

That argument, of course, comes with the challenge of having to define the meaning of “right to life”. For, as the BBC report correctly posits, if the right to life for a river means the right to flow freely, what happens to dams across the river?

It all makes for interesting debate, especially now with climate change being a hot issue globally.

We wonder if here in Jamaica environmental lobbyists would be inclined to seek answers from the courts in relation to how we treat our natural resources. The Kingston Harbour, for instance, has been the source of heavy pollution for decades, even though measures have been put in place to counter the problem.

In the recent past, a Government of Jamaica/Inter-American Development Bank Kingston Harbour Institutional Strengthening report made note that water quality in the harbour has been deteriorating as a result of inflows of untreated sewage, industrial discharge, ship waste, and agricultural run-off.

Unfortunately, pollution is not unique to Kingston Harbour. It is indeed an islandwide problem that every Jamaican needs to tackle.

We may never go the route of India, Ecuador and New Zealand, as pointed out here, for even without the legal designations highlighted, there still exists an inability to police and enforce legislation specific to littering and pollution.

However, just think of the benefit to the country if there was a significant culture shift.




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