News / Vancouver

Nature needs legal rights: B.C. law prof

Feds mull people's eco-rights. But nature's rights?

It would be preposterous to imagine a river, tree or orca hiring a lawyer, if only because of their lack of opposable thumbs or access to a retainer budget.

But it's not actually such a wild idea for one University of British Columbia law professor, just one of a growing chorus of legal experts who think it's time for Canada to consider following in New Zealand and Bolivia's footsteps.

"In our current legal system we regard everything that’s not human as property: wildlife, forests, water, and so on," explained Vancouver lawyer David Boyd, associate professor of law, policy, and sustainability at UBC's Institute for Resources, Environment, and Sustainability, in a phone interview. "But that property-based system has been a huge impediment to solving the environmental problems plaguing us today.

"These are not objects there for our use. We could instead acknowledge that individual animals, rivers and forests have rights of their own."

Unrealistic, right? Stop thinking of a grizzly with a gavel, or a suing salmon stream — and instead consider that several other countries have done exactly that.

In March, for instance, New Zealand officially granted legal rights to its third-longest waterway, the Whanganui river, after a decades-long fight by the Whanganui Maori community.

(By comparison, it would be equivalent to giving Canada's third-largest river is the 3,000 km Saint Lawrence, the same rights as Canadians; or B.C.'s third-largest river, the 1,400-km Fraser)

"We have fought to find an approximation in law so that all others can understand that from our perspective treating the river as a living entity is the correct way to approach it, as an indivisible whole," Whanganui spokesman Gerrard Albert told reporters at the time, "instead of the traditional model for the last 100 years of treating it from a perspective of ownership and management.”

It's not even the only place in New Zealand granted legal personhood and self-ownership. In 2014, the Te Urewera forested North Island region also on North Island ceased being a national park and instead became a "person" under the law.

"The laws are quite amazing to read," Boyd remarked. "In both cases, the law set up a guardian composed of Maori and New Zealand government representatives given very specfic mandates to make decisions in the best interests of the river.

"The mechanism they use to do that is designating the river as a legal person … That’s a radical proposition. It's now one of the few places of earth where humans don’t own the land."

And in 2010, the Indigenous-led government of Bolivia passed the world's first Law of the Rights of Mother Earth, the first ever to grant legal personhood to nature.

"For the purpose of protecting and enforcing its rights … Mother Earth and all its components, including human communities, are entitled to all the inherent rights recognized in this Law," it states. "… Any conflict of rights must be resolved in ways that do not irreversibly affect the functionality of living systems."

Ecuador earlier granted its environment "the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution," but did not back that up with the same enforceable legal rights as Bolivia or New Zealand.

Asked how Canada could possibly grant such legal standing to something that's not even human or even conscious, without overhauling its entire system, Boyd said it's not as outlandish as some might think.

"Critically, the right of nature doesn’t mean that a river has human rights," he replied. "Of course not, that doesn’t make any sense; they can't vote.

"The funny thing is some people initially think this is a crazy idea, to give rights to non-human. But actually we do that quite a bit with municipalities and corporations. In fact, corporations have a whole array of rights bestowed upon them through our legal system."

The notion of "rights of nature" is separate from another, related idea that has recently made strides forward in Canada, however — the "rights to nature," or more accurately Canadians' right to a healthy, clean environment.

Leading the charge on that front are several environmental groups including the David Suzuki Foundation (DSF). Last June the federal government's Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development urged Ottawa to enshrine the "right to a healthy environment" into law, with the environment minister responding that her government agrees "changes are needed to modernize and improve CEPA" — vowing to respond to the proposals by June.

That's a welcome step forward, DSF's environmental rights campaign manager Peter Wood told Metro in an interview at the time. But asked about Boyd's rights of nature proposal, Wood said it's not in the cards at this point — at least until Canada joins 149 countries with environmental rights for their own people.

"'You're the ones who want to give trees a lawyer,'" Wood imagines skeptics scoffing. "We're focused on getting environmental rights as human rights.

"The rights of nature is more hypothetical at the moment. People aren't quite ready for that yet."

More on Metronews.ca