You may be thinking that this is a novel concept, how can non-sentient, seemingly inert beings have the same legal rights as a person, but it’s a juridical idea dating back to the 1820’s with a tree that owned itself.
William Jackson, a pillar of the community in Athens, Georgia apparently loved a White Oak tree so much that in his will bequeathed the tree, along with its surrounding land, to itself. The original deed was lost, but a tablet remains beside the tree inscribed with the words:
“For and in consideration of the love I bear this tree, and the desire I have for its protection for all time, I convey entire possession of itself and all land within eight feet of the tree on all sides. William H. Jackson”
After the original tree died all its land was bestowed to a single acorn. Now fully grown, the successor to the estate has local representatives acting in the best interests of the tree, making it legally untouchable. Whether the original tree that owns itself is fact or fable is still disputed today due to lack of documented evidence, but that’s not to say the concept hasn’t influenced modern strategies in safeguarding nature.
In 2014 the New Zealand government granted Te Urewera National Park ownership of itself. Te Urewera is now a fully recognised legal entity with an appointed board of executives acting on its behalf to report, promote, advise and advocate for its best interests. The Act also recognises the spiritual significance of Te Urewera, regarded by the Tuhoe iwi as their homeland and as the heart of the great fish Maui. The Board thusly makes decisions with consideration of traditional Tuhoe ideology, including the tapu me noa notion of sanctity that requires respectful human behaviour in a spiritually significant place, and to leave no trace of oneself upon leaving it.
The Board considers its relationship with other iwi and hapu communities in the area, requiring their approval in decision-making, further safeguarding the preservation of Maori cultures, traditions and their relationship with the forest.
This innovative strategy has created another legislative hoop for environmentally reckless corporations to jump through, creating more legal “red tape” to hinder any development upon or detrimental action taken against the forest. The Act has also become a legislative deterrent against poachers and any other ecologically disruptive individual or party by enforcing severe penalties in breach of the Act. These penalties include; fines of up to $5,000 or £10,000 for the breaching of the Act’s bylaws; fines of up to $100,000 and up to 2 years jail time for individuals; and fines up to $200,000 for corporate bodies violating Te Urewera’s rights.
Gaining traction, the idea was once again adopted in March 2017, this time being 3 rivers; New Zealand’s Whanganui River, and India’s Ganges and Yamuna. The Whanganui, in similar proceedings to the Tu Urewera was granted legal guardians, this time being a member of indigenous Maori local to the river and a government official.
Meanwhile the decision from the Indian government will influence individuals and businesses close to the Ganges & Yamuna to tighten their sustainability and disposal standards, ensuring no harmful substances are dumped into the already severely polluted sacred rivers. This is set to have noticeable benefits on the wider world too, particularly regarding the Ganges as it is 1 of 10 river systems in the world that carry 90% of the plastics that end up in the oceans.
Side-note: The study from the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research found that the 10 river systems carrying 90% of plastics found at sea are;
In addition to this, alleviating unsustainable activity would dampen the effects of climate change, the impacts of which are usually much more severe for countries closer to the equator. India awarding legal personhood to more of its wilderness could facilitate the rapid action needed to tackle the emissions driving climate change. This legislative barrier buys enough time to open the discussion for sustainable development in places otherwise earmarked for short-term gains; to demonstrate that people can not only live harmoniously with nature but benefit far greater from doing so.
A recently published Nature Climate Change paper outlined the relationship between a nation’s average temperature and GDP per capita to calculate the socio-economic cost of CO2 per ton. India’s was found to be the highest in the world at $90 per ton due to its high temperatures and rapid economic growth; growth which, if continues as predicted, will catastrophically slow as the average temperature rises. Therefore, it is in India and many other nation’s best interests to consider conservation strategies as strong as this.