This article by GentleWays for OurPlanet founder and executive director Aïda Warah originally appeared in Peace and Environment News.

An exciting movement is emerging world-wide that aims to have natural landscapes such as rivers, forests, lakes, and mountains legally recognized as persons with inherent rights and intrinsic value.

The movement’s first major milestone was marked on March 20, 2017, when the Whanganui River in New Zealand became the first river to be recognized as a living, indivisible whole withlegal personhood following a strong advocacy by the Māori tribes. Later, the Klamath River in North California became the first river in North America to be granted personhood – at least under tribal law – in 2019. Canada later followed by bestowing legal personhood for the Magpie River in Quebec, Côte-Nord Region. The movement has since taken off in other countries around the world—in Bangladesh for instance, all rivers were granted personhood status in 2019 with rights to be protected from pollution and encroachment.

“Treating natural entities as subjects with rights protects them from harm and helps conserve them, not necessarily for our benefits but in acknowledgment of their inherent rights to exist and flourish.”

While this movement has taken root only recently in modern legal systems, Indigenous Peoples have always recognized nature as a living, sentient being equal to humans. Treating natural entities as subjects with rights protects them from harm and helps conserve them, not necessarily for our benefits but in acknowledgment of their inherent rights to exist and flourish. This principle has always been of supreme value for GentleWays for OurPlanet, and our vision holds that “all beings on the planet co-exist and thrive through a sustainable collaboration.”

Under the prevailing mindset of ownership and human supremacy, people have been treating natural life forms as resources for exploitation in the service of economic growth and have caused much harm in the form of pollution, habitat destruction, and resource depletion. While various environmental and enforcement laws are intended to protect and conserve nature, they do so from an anthropocentric context and aim to serve human wellness and economic growth. But by declaring natural entities as right holders we affirm their right to live—the difference in perspective is huge and the cultural impact potentially transformative.

Long before I was introduced to Indigenous ways of being, I learned to treat nature with love and respect while growing up in a beautiful mountainous Mediterranean country, where the forests of pine trees that surrounded our home were a source of tremendous joy for me. Later on, my work with Indigenous Elders and my own spiritual development journey deepened my respect for nature and further clarified my beliefs about our relationships with nature. Deep down, my ever-present feeling towards nature is reverence and gratitude; to me, nature is the matrix to which we all belong as a connected community.

Image Credit: C. Bonasia

Now, let us take a closer look at the meaning of granting personhood to rivers; is it symbolic or real?

Environmental personhood to rivers means that rivers have the same rights, privileges, protections, responsibilities, and liabilities of a person. Here, in Canada and the USA, we still don’t have case studies where the law has been tested, but guardians and advocates could theoretically take legal action against any entity known to cause harm to a designated river. The Magpie River in Quebec, for example, now has nine rights including the right to flow, maintain biodiversity, and be free from pollution. So, advocates could, for instance, sue an entity known to dump polluting substances or for building dams that would stop the river’s natural flow. Legal experts say that since laws in a civilization express its values, eventually laws can help shift our ways of thinking. In the long run, these mindset changes can support stronger pro-environmental action even if enforcement of court decisions could be difficult.

Seeing rivers as persons also draws attention to their cultural and spiritual significance for peoples and to the interconnectedness of all beings, as Indigenous Peoples have long recognized. The modern Rights of Nature movement is a bridge reconnecting western civilization with this way of thinking, and I am here reminded of what Gandhi said about civilizations: “The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members” (and the voiceless, I would add). Although nature is extremely powerful, human beings have over the past hundred and fifty years permanently altered the face of this planet. How we treat the voiceless, natural landscapes, animals, shows our mettle. The Rights of Nature movement reflects a wonderful human awakening with the potential of accelerating our progress towards a gentler way of relating to the natural world; a way that upholds the integrity of not only human beings but also of all beings of this awesome planet.

Image Credit: C. Bonasia

Aïda Warah is the founder and executive director of GentleWays for OurPlanet. She is a former Canadian federal public service executive, with twelve years at Environment and Climate Change Canada. Her work experience also includes university teaching and research in the areas of ethics, good governance, and leadership development. By profession she is a registered psychologist with a Ph.D. in psychology (UO) and postdoctoral studies in organization development and alternative dispute resolution.