Beginnings of a movement

An Ecuadorian river wins in court in 2011. A lawsuit filed on behalf of the Vilcabamba River, named plaintiff in the case, sought to enforce its own constitutional rights to exist and thrive. The healthy functioning and flow of the river was being impacted by a government road-widening construction project.
Earlier in 2007, when Ecuador was drafting a new constitution, coalition of indigenous people asserted that it should include not only human rights but also rights for ‘Pachamama’, a Quechua word for Mother Earth. They convinced the citizens assembly to include a series of articles recognizing the rights of Pachamama. With standing granted by the newly established constitution, the Provincial Justice Court of Loja ruled in favor of the Vilcabamba River, marking the first instance of a court upholding the constitutional rights of nature.
national park and watershed in New Zealand attain personhood. New Zealand’s Māori iwi, who call the Whanganui River ‘ancestor’, have been fighting for its legal protections for over 140 years. In 2014, parliament passed the Te Awa Tupua Act, establishing the Whanganui River and its ecosystem as having the status of a legal person, with an articulated series of rights and protections under the law to guarantee its health and well-being.
Around the same time, negotiations between Māori iwi and the government over Te Urewere National Park, a contested 400,000 acre reserve originally taken from the Māori in the 1950’s, followed a similar trajectory. When the new law was passed in 2017, the former national park became the first natural area on earth to be designated as a person, a place where humans have relinquished assertion of ownership and recognized an ecosystem as having inalienable rights.
An Indian court establishes Himalayan glaciers and major rivers as “legal persons.” The Ganges is India’s holiest river, considered a source of spiritual purification for devout Hindus. It is also among the world’s most polluted and struggles to supply potable water to 40% of India’s growing population, or roughly 500 million. Saturated with human waste, industrial contaminants and the ashes of deceased Hindus, the Ganges is a major source of deadly waterborne disease and diarrhea.
In 2015, in an effort to reverse this devastation, the Indian state of Uttarakhand granted the Ganges River, and its main tributary, the Yamuna River, legal status of living human entities. Henceforth, polluting or damaging these rivers is the equivalent of harming a person carrying with it “all
corresponding rights, duties and preserve and conserve them."
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