By Mumta Ito
Could our legal system evolve to grant rivers, mountains, oceans, ecosystems and species that comprise nature legal personality – just like corporations? What would our world look like if we recognised in law that nature has inherent rights just like us and that it is in our best interests to respect those rights in law?
The town council of Frome, responding to the pleas of local NGOs are proposing a new by-law that recognises the rights of the River Frome and surrounding ecosystem. This move is very much aligned with the recent trend for courts to recognise the inherent rights of rivers around the world.
In the past few months alone, the Whanganui, Ganges and Yamuna rivers made headlines as the first rivers in the world to be granted legal personality and rights. Earlier this month, the courts did the same in Columbia by granting rights to the Atrato River along with an order to clean up its waters.
In the UK local authorities have the power to propose local level laws. In the United States, laws recognising the rights of nature have been brought in at local level by over 36 municipalities – including large cities like Santa Monica and Pittsburgh. This has been largely through progressive communities or town councils – like Frome in the UK – who are willing to push the boat out and test the waters when it comes to using by-laws in an innovative way.
The River Frome has suffered from ongoing pollution. According to local NGOs, existing laws and agencies have not been able to effectively protect the river from an unacceptable level of pollution This is why Sustainable Frome, upon the advice of the NGO Nature’s Rights, wrote to the Town Council last year requesting that the Council takes the lead on this issue by enacting a new type of law which recognises the rights of nature stating that “this approach provides a model which would allow local people to use law to protect their environment in a less costly and more collaborative way.” They went on to say, “A healthy River Frome is good for people, good for business and good for the wildlife in Frome and beyond. As part of this, Sustainable Frome believe that a rights of nature bye-law would be a useful tool for drawing attention to the ongoing pollution of the river and creating impetus to solve these problems in a local forum.”
Nature’s Rights have since been working with the Town Council to draft a local by-law and advise on the next steps involved in getting this into local law and policy. Although this is the first move in the UK to get rights of nature into law, Nature’s Rights have successfully worked with the Green Party UK and Scotland to include the rights of nature in their policies and are currently working with the Irish Green Party to do the same.
As a spokesperson for Sustainable Frome said, “ We would like Frome to be a pioneer council by being the first in the UK to make an application for approval of a law which grants rights to a natural entity – our precious River Frome.”
About Mumta Ito
Mumta is a Lawyer and Founder of the NGO Nature’s Rights. She sees law as a vehicle for social transformation in a paradigm of restoration, reparation and healing. One of Europe’s leading advocates for rights of nature, she is also European facilitator of the UN Harmony with Nature expert dialogues and initiator of a European Citizens Initiative to propose nature’s rights to the EU legislative agenda.
About Nature’s Rights
Nature’s Rights (previously Rights of Nature Europe) is a young international non-profit organization committed to establishing rights of nature in law and policy in Europe and around the world. Among its innovations is a Draft EU Directive to codify nature’s rights into European law.