If a corporation can have "legal personhood", so can a river. And not just the River Ganges... but the River Frome too

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In 2017, A/UK co-initiator Pat Kane wrote in The National on the growing moves to try to give rivers “legal personhood” - just like commercial corporations - in order that their “rights” could be environmentally protected:

In April/May, three rivers – two in India, one in New Zealand – were accorded the status of “legal person”, by regional and national courts. It’s regarded as a victory by locals conservationists. But the outcomes are complex.

A “legal person” isn’t the same as a human person. For example, a corporation has personhood – which means it has legal rights and duties separate from its managers and stakeholders. This is the power these rivers (the Ganga and Yamuna in India, and the Whanganuni in New Zealand) and their official representatives now possess.

As The Conversation website puts it: “Giving nature legal rights means the law can see ‘nature’ as a legal person, thus creating rights that can then be enforced. Legal rights focus on the idea of legal standing (often described as the ability to sue and be sued), which enables ‘nature’ to go to court to protect its rights. Legal personhood also includes the right to enter and enforce contracts, and the ability to hold property.”

These startling environmental powers – which allow the rivers to “defend themselves” against pollution, exploitation or enclosure – rest on a prior ground of religion and identity. The Maoris have been trying to legally establish this river as a “living entity” and “ancestor” for 140 years – an expression of their view of being fundamentally unified with the natural world.

The Indian ruling cited New Zealand’s victory explicitly, with the sacred status of the Ganges (which both rivers make up) as the cultural backdrop to the decision.

Now in 2019, the legal struggle to give rivers legal personhood has come to an area in the UK, and an activist, we know well in A/UK - Peter Macfadyen, and Frome. From this excellent Reuters report:

Nobody knows exactly how ancient masons, wielding chisels made from deer antlers, managed to build Stonehenge, the standing circle that has enchanted southern England for thousands of years.

But one theory about the epic undertaking reserves a special place for a nearby river, now known as the Frome, that may have served as a conduit for ferrying some of the smaller megaliths toward the site on rafts. 

Today, the placid waterway is once again playing a supporting role in a grand vision, albeit one its architects want to etch in the statute books, not in stone. 

Frome, a market town in the county of Somerset, is petitioning the British government to grant the River Frome “legal personhood” – in effect, giving it human rights. 

In throwing down this gauntlet, the town has joined a global “rights of nature” movement linking river basins in New Zealand to rainforests in South America and towns in the U.S. Midwest. In each case, communities are reimagining ways to harness the law to defend the Earth’s living tissues, and the places they call home. Some have dubbed it Mother Earth’s MeToo moment. 

In practical terms, supporters hope that granting the Frome rights will give lawyers a new avenue to seek redress whenever its waters are sullied by runoff from pig and dairy farms or overflowing sewers. Last month, one of the River Frome’s tributaries turned an unnatural shade of neon blue – highlighting wider concerns over water quality in British rivers. 

But Peter Macfadyen, an undertaker who redrew Frome’s political map by leading a band of independent candidates to take over the town council, wants to do more than protect one river. In an era of accelerating climate change, Macfadyen and his allies see their quest as part of a struggle to reset the balance between nature and the modern world. 

“This is much bigger than just wanting to punish people for doing something wrong,” said Macfadyen, who also served as Frome’s mayor. “It’s about trying to change a mindset about the environment in which we live.”

More here from the Reuters piece.