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.)
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…