Rights for Forests, Rivers, and Nonhumans

I thought we were at the end of all the dreadfulness for one week, but apparently not. For a change of pace, perhaps this news from New Zealand—lovely home of hobbits and Na’vi, not to mention the Notorious RBG’s chosen anti-Trumpian refuge—will interest and delight:

A former national park has been granted personhood, and a river system is expected to receive the same soon. The unusual designations, something like the legal status that corporations possess, came out of agreements between New Zealand’s government and Maori groups. The two sides have argued for years over guardianship of the country’s natural features….

The park is Te Urewera, and the river, Whanganui (NZ’s third largest). The proximate goal is, “that lawsuits to protect the land can be brought on behalf of the land itself, with no need to show harm to a particular human.” More broadly, the hope is that the legal concepts of nonhuman rights and personhood will be strong tools in the fights against climate change, mass extinction, and other forms of ecocide.

The idea that ecological features merit consideration in the legal and social sphere is both cutting-edge and incredibly ancient:

The unusual designations, something like the legal status that corporations possess, came out of agreements between New Zealand’s government and Maori groups. The two sides have argued for years over guardianship of the country’s natural features.

Chris Finlayson, New Zealand’s attorney general, said the issue was resolved by taking the Maori mind-set into account. “In their worldview, ‘I am the river and the river is me,’” he said. “Their geographic region is part and parcel of who they are.”…

“The settlement is a profound alternative to the human presumption of sovereignty over the natural world,” said Pita Sharples, who was the minister of Maori affairs when the law was passed.

In her brilliant book This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein focuses on indigenous communities as key players in the fight against climate change: “What is changing is that many non-Native people are starting to realize that indigenous rights—if aggressively backed by court challenges, direct action, and mass movements demanding that they be respected—may now represent the most powerful barriers protecting all of us from a future of climate chaos.” (Also, check out the schedule for 2016 Bioneers—lots of events focusing on indigenous cultures and strategies.)

Lovely Te Urewera

Lovely Te Urewera

New Zealand isn’t even the first! Bolivia and Ecuador have already granted rights to nature (called “wild law”). These laws lack specifics, though, and it’s not clear whether they have any teeth. (Bolivia’s law, for instance, hasn’t stopped oil company depredations.) Still, even if a “wild law” is just a symbol, it’s a powerful and potentially game-changing one.

NZ’s laws are honest-to-gosh enforceable laws-with-teeth. (And the article reports that NZ is in discussion with Canada, which is considering similar ones.)

Meanwhile, there are also multiple legal efforts to grant personhood status to select nonhumans, especially great apes. The most famous effort here in the U.S. is the Nonhuman Rights Project, of which I’m a proud long-time supporter. A new film about their work, Unlocking the Cage, has just been released by celebrated filmmakers D A Pennebaker (Don’t Look Back) and Chris Hegedus (The War Room). Check it out!

Other countries, including Argentina, Balearic Islands, Germany, New Zealand, Spain, and Switzerland, have passed strong animal-welfare legislation guaranteeing great apes and other species life, liberty, a decent standard of care, and/or the freedom to use one’s natural capacities. These are not, strictly speaking, “rights” laws, but they do provide a strong foundation for them.

Obviously, as forests, rivers, and nonhumans gain real rights, others lose the right to exploit them. And some good people, including veterinarians, dog groomers, and pet sitters, will have to proceed more carefully since, if they screw up, we’re no longer just talking about property damage, but actual pain and suffering incurred by individuals. (Ten years ago, a groomer told me that this was already a big concern in her industry.)

On the other hand, nonhuman personhood will make things MUCH tougher for animal abusers, as a ruling last month in Oregon demonstrated. (Again, we’re not yet talking about rights but a strong move in that direction.)

In a blurb for Unlocking the Cage, Jon Stewart (yeah, that one—he now runs a farmed animal sanctuary) says the movie makes him, “proud to be a primate.” Me, too! We humans do an awful lot of bad things to each other and other species, but I hope you agree that there are times we shine. We can be repositories not just of order in an entropically accelerating universe, but of compassion and generosity in an often heartless one.

The issue of rights for nonhuman entities is obviously profound, with vast implications. So what say you, Juicers? How would it affect you or those you know personally? When you answer, please consider the way we discuss our animal friends on this site. Do we discuss Steve, Rosie, Thurston, Lovey, Max, etc.–not to mention, the late, great (in every sense of the word!) Tunch–as if they were “things” or “people?”

Looking forward to your ideas…

59 replies
  1. 1
    Steeplejack says:

    Redacted because post healed itself.

  2. 2
    Hillary Rettig says:

    @Steeplejack: Amazing how that happens. ;-) Thanks for the alert tho.

  3. 3
    Corner Stone says:

    from New Zealand—lovely home of hobbits and Na’vi, not to mention the Notorious RBG’s chosen anti-Trumpian refuge

    Come on, now. Keith G may have just been about to unfurl his clutched fucking pearls over what RBG said. And now? I fear for his boys’ circulation.

  4. 4
    Corner Stone says:

    Turkey Detains 6,000 People As Crackdown Widens After Bloody Coup Attempt

    Wow. If 10’s of thousands of people knew and were complicit in the attempted coup I guess the Obama admin really should be ashamed for being taken by surprise.

  5. 5
    Bill E Pilgrim says:

    This blog is definitely a person. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought “That blog needs therapy”.

    If I were to armchair diagnose I’d say MPD, which would fit nicely with the theory that it’s all actually just Doug J both posting and commenting.

  6. 6
    Corner Stone says:

    @Bill E Pilgrim:

    If I were to armchair diagnose I’d say MPD, which would fit nicely with the theory that it’s all actually just Doug J both posting and commenting.

    It clearly is. That’s proven by how he periodically prunes out high maintenance personalities.

  7. 7
    joel hanes says:

    In his dissent in 1972’s Sierra Club v. Morton Supreme Court decision, Justice Douglas argued that nature/trees should have standing.
    That seems to me to be the right place to start.

    High Country News does its usual thorough and evenhanded discussion here :

  8. 8
    Hillary Rettig says:

    @Bill E Pilgrim: :-) cute! (and out of all the possible responses I was expecting I confess that yours wasn’t one of them.)

  9. 9
    joel hanes says:

    Comment with link to substance in moderation.
    Help please?

  10. 10
    CaseyL says:

    IIRC, either Australia or NZ were also the first country to recognize “Jedi” as an actual religion. I didn’t think that was silly at all: I thought it showed a lovely sense of whimsy and proportion. I’m not too surprised Oceania also being a leader in rights for forests and non-humans. They seem to be willing to take chances comparable countries are too nervous or too beholden to take.

    I love the progress in securing rights for non-humans there and here, too.

    My only concern – and I’m pretty sure the possibility is a remote one – is if nutjobs like PETA are part of the process. Then I’d worry about laws making companion animals illegal on the basis of involuntary servitude.

  11. 11
    Hillary Rettig says:

    @CaseyL: re companion animals, they are problematic in the sense that the “pet industry” creates enormous suffering (the supply and demand thing that causes millions to be euthanized every year), but many animal rights supporters, including yours truly, cherish them.

    and yeah, both NZ and AUS seem great in a lot of ways, including not taking themselves too seriously.

  12. 12
    Doug R says:

    Ironically, most of the scenes inside or around the human mine/colony were shot in New Zealand-including a lot of the battle scenes with NZ stuntmen. But most of the Navi scenes were shot in Howard Hughes’ La Playa, the space where he designed and built the Spruce Goose near Long Beach.

  13. 13
    Hillary Rettig says:

    @joel hanes: well, damn! glad I got you out of moderation! ;-) can I ask how you happen to know about that.

  14. 14
    Hillary Rettig says:

    @Doug R: that is truly ironic (and a little deflating!)

  15. 15
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @Hillary Rettig:

    can I ask how you happen to know about that.

    Most people who know that learned it in Con Law.

  16. 16
    Doug R says:

    That communication between trees? It’s real, discovered by a UBC researcher. Her words here.

  17. 17
    kindness says:

    What you bet the same people that love Citizens United are apocolyptic over rivers and parks having person-hood.

  18. 18
    Hillary Rettig says:

    @Doug R: and I believe FUNGI are involved. :-)

  19. 19
    Doug R says:

    Suzanne on youtube

  20. 20
    Hillary Rettig says:

    @kindness: I’d bet a lot. Having humans at the apex of creation and everything subordinate to “him” comes straight out of Genesis. So the theocrats will object, but so will anyone seeking to make a fast buck at the expense of nature and our species’ continued survival.

    Naomi Klein is brilliant on all this.

  21. 21
    Hillary Rettig says:

    @Omnes Omnibus: thx!

  22. 22
    Hillary Rettig says:

    @Doug R: check out the google images for Pachamama and you’ll see some very Avatarish ideas.

  23. 23

    Hindus revere Ganga, that hasn’t stopped it from being from one of the most populated rivers in India. One of the Hindu death rites involve scattering ashes in the Ganga near Varanasi (also known as Kashi or Benaras) or another river if you are not near Ganga or your relatives cannot go there. Believers believe that all your sins are washed away if you take a dip in the Ganga
    One of the many songs praising Ganga.
    Jai Gange Bhagirathi.
    Ganga is also known as Bhagarithi, after Bhagirat who persuades Ganga to come to the earth with great difficulty.

    * Ganga = Ganges, that’s what the British called it.

  24. 24
    Hillary Rettig says:

    @schrodinger’s cat: Thank you! That’s fascinating. It will be interesting to see how the idea of giving rights to something “revered” will play out, if it does.

  25. 25
    Steeplejack (phone) says:

    @joel hanes:

    FYWP currently doesn’t like naked hyperlinks! Learn to use the “link” button above the comment box or else resign yourself to perpetual moderation.

  26. 26
    Jerzy Russian says:

    @schrodinger’s cat: “populated” = “polluted”?

  27. 27
    burnspbesq says:

    @joel hanes:

    That dissent was inspired by an article written by one of my favorite law school profs, Chris Stone.

    Klein is decades late to the party, as usual. The next time she has a useful original thought will be the first.

  28. 28
  29. 29
    🚸 Martin says:

    @joel hanes: If trees have standing, why wouldn’t fetuses?

    Just throwing that out there…

  30. 30
    burnspbesq says:

    ETA: Chris Stone came by his eccentric genius honestly. He is the son of I.F. Stone.

  31. 31
    Emma says:

    @schrodinger’s cat: That’s a beautiful song!

  32. 32
    Pogonip says:

    I think a river being a person is no less or more stupid than a corporation being a person.

  33. 33
    burnspbesq says:

    @🚸 Martin:

    Fetuses can have standing if you insist. The more interesting question is whether fetuses have rights–and if so, what are they and when do they arise.

  34. 34
    Keith G says:

    @🚸 Martin:

    If trees have standing, why wouldn’t fetuses?

    Because their limbs are under-developed?

  35. 35
    burnspbesq says:


    The best explanation of why corporations have to be afforded legal personality is still the first. Go read Blackstone.

  36. 36
    Baud says:

    One of the aspects of corporate personhood is the power to sue and be sued. So next time you crash your car into a tree, sue its leaves off.

  37. 37
    Hillary Rettig says:

    @Pogonip: actually way LESS stupid b/c rivers are a natural creation that create true value for vast numbers, whereas corporations are an artificial and arbitrary construct that provide value to only a few while allowing them to escape any negative consequences to their actions.

    As documented in the excellent movie The Corporation, which also successfully (IMHO) argues that, if corporations are individuals, they’re psychopaths.

  38. 38
    Hillary Rettig says:

    @Baud: you’ve anticipated a future post, smart guy. ;-)

  39. 39
    Baud says:

    Seriously, I’d be interested in knowing how this is different than a trust.

  40. 40
    Hillary Rettig says:

    @Keith G: very punny!

  41. 41
    Hillary Rettig says:

    @🚸 Martin: oy. you went there…

  42. 42
    🚸 Martin says:

    @burnspbesq: Not insisting, just wondering. If you accept the argument that fetuses are not people, I don’t think you can deny that fetuses are part of nature. I’m just wondering where that line of reasoning goes, because you know it would happen.

  43. 43
    burnspbesq says:

    @Hillary Rettig:

    provide value to only a few

    Bull. Shit.

    You seriously want to live in a world where the only forms under which business can be conducted are sole proprietorships and general partnerships? Hint: no, you don’t–and if you think you do, you’re not thinking clearly.

  44. 44
    🚸 Martin says:

    @Hillary Rettig: I didn’t go there. It’s a line already being explored in some states. Right now from what I’ve seen the main argument to deny those suits is that they aren’t people.

  45. 45
    Hillary Rettig says:

    @Baud: I hope the lawyers weigh in, but in my IANAL opinion I think it’s because a trust could be defined in many ways, but rights are fixed and universal (within the country) – a trust couldn’t violate them.

  46. 46
    M31 says:

    @Doug R:

    I remember a while back reading an article about tree communication in Scientific American, and later that day seeing this headline in a supermarket tabloid: “TOP SCIENTISTS PROVE TREES CAN TALK”

  47. 47

    @Emma:Thanks, I am glad you liked it!

  48. 48
    AdamK says:

    @🚸 Martin: What if they did? If somebody’s inside a woman, and she wants them out of there, they have to get out.

  49. 49
    joel hanes says:

    @Hillary Rettig:

    can I ask how you happen to know about that.

    I remember it from when it happened — I was already 20 years old in 1972, and I’m a deep environmentalist; this is the kind of thing that’s important to me.

  50. 50
    joel hanes says:


    next time you crash your car into a tree, sue its leaves off

    There’s a long tradition in European law of inanimate objects being prosecuted and convicted of crimes.
    For an amusing treatment that nevertheless gives some accurate background, see Julian Barnes’s A History Of The World In 10 1/2 Chapters

    I think that tradition is one of the bases for the (IMHO, unConstitutional) US case law that supports civil forfeiture.

  51. 51
    joel hanes says:

    @Steeplejack (phone):

    FYWP doesn’t like naked links


    I don’t need no steenking button: I know perfectly well how to use the HTML tag.
    However, one of the blogs on which I frequently comment renders link text in almost exactly the same color and font as regular text, which makes proper links all but invisible — so I’ve gotten into the bad habit of posting naked links because everyone can see that it’s a link.

    I’ll try to remember to use the tag on BJ.

  52. 52
    Steeplejack (phone) says:

    @joel hanes:

    I haven’t tested it, but I surmise that you could reuse the hyperlink text for the texty text part of the HTML tag. Or you could say what the link goes to and append an explicit “link here” to that.

  53. 53
    Barb2 says:

    Native Hawaiians have a word for the land – ‘Aina

    ‘Aina is part of other words – the land is the people, people are the land. Polynesians explored and settled on Pacific islands thousands of years ago. There was trade and contact through out the Pacific islands. We know this in part because of the surviving language. Native Hawaiias and NZ Maori can understand each other with a little work.

    Respect for the land is common among the Polynesian world views. At least among the ones taught the old ways. ‘Aina is alive, if you believe you can feel the living land. Get the elders from across the Pacific together and they have common words for respect for the land.

    New Zealand seems to be listening to the land and the people of the land. Makes me glad and hopeful to learn about the positive progress!

  54. 54
    cmorenc says:

    Back in 1972, Christopher Stone, a law professor at Southern Cal School of Law, published a law review article “Should Trees have Standing? – Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects”. – the link brings up a .pdf copy of the actual original article. Unfortunately, courts in the US (including most particularly the US Supreme Court) have so far resolutely refused to adopt Stone’s ideas about extending standing to tangible objects other than people – or intangible things other than government agencies or corporations. At best, a trustee may have standing to represent a trust owning e.g. a tract of trees or land – that would be the best approach. But first, the rights to the land or tree have to be formally transferred to the trust – they still lack standing on their own as objects, and the purpose of the trust has to be relevant to its alleged standing to bring suit, in order for there to be any “case or controversy” litigable on its behalf.

  55. 55
    Jonothan says:

    New Zealand also produced these guys…


  56. 56
    AnotherBruce says:

    @Bill E Pilgrim: Doug J is us, and we are all Doug J.

  57. 57
    Hunter says:

    @schrodinger’s cat: An interesting note on Ganga and how a river so heavily polluted can still be used for drinking (not to mention how wildlife survives): Researchers have discovered that the water in the Ganges contains a high proportion of bacteriophages, which literally eat the bacteria from all the bathing and sewage, etc. The more pollution, the more they reproduce, which means they eat more bactera. The water also contains a high proportion of dissolved oxygen, which speeds up the process.

    As for the idea that forests and wildlife should have standing, as a devout Pagan all I can say is “What took them so long?”

  58. 58
    Cermet says:

    @burnspbesq: OK, why? What is essential about that form of business that no other can do? I’m curious to know.

  59. 59
    Annamal says:

    @Barb2: HI Barb, from the way you’ve described it, I suspect the equivalent Maori word for “aina” would be whenua and you’re right it is considered important enough that one of the other words used to describe the Maori population is tangata whenua (people of the land).

    When you’re introducing yourself on a Marae, your speech always includes your ancestry (as well as your waka) but it will include your mountain and your river as well.

    Sadly our rivers are not doing so well these days but there are some cool things happening…this wildlife sanctuary is 15 minutes from parliament and it’s responsible for an incredible explosion of birdlife over the region

    Also the kakapo breeding program managed to successfully hatch and rear over 30 chicks this year (considering the starting population worldwide was 125, this is really impressive)

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