EarthTalk…Questions & Answers About Our Environment

MARCH 2021

Dear EarthTalk: Should rivers be given the same legal rights as people in order to protect them?                                                                                                                ~ Phyllis T., New Haven, CT

“The river flows from the mountain to the sea. I am the river. The river is me.”
—Māori proverb from the Whanganui iwi (tribe)

Native groups, environmental organizations, local residents, and all those who rely on a river’s health know the importance of protecting them. One idea that has been proposed in order to address this is giving rivers the same legal rights as people in courts. This idea came to fruition because of the concept of ‘environmental personhood’ and its past applications on other non-human elements of nature.

Environmental personhood is a legal concept that endows different environmental entities with the same status as a person in court, and is being used by many groups to protect natural resources in the modern world. Indigenous groups have long recognized nature as a “subject with personhood deserving of protection and respect, rather than … as a merchandise or commodity over which property rights should be exercised,” says Monti Aguirre of International Rivers. Because of this, many native groups have been at the forefront of global efforts to petition courts and governments for environmental personhood for rivers.

In New Zealand, the Te Awa Tupua River on the North Island was given the status of legal personhood in 2017 after nine years of negotiations between the former New Zealand attorney general and the Whanganui iwi, or tribe, and other indigenous Māori groups. The law outlines that both the New Zealand court and the Whanganui iwi have joint guardianship over the river. This connects the river legally to the indigenous people who have depended upon and cared for it for over 700 years. The change has impacted both people’s behaviors in the ways that they treat the river and their individual perceptions of the river.

In 2019, the Yurok Tribe granted personhood to Northern California’s Klamath River, giving the waterway the same legal rights as a human, — at least under tribal law. Credit: Bob Wick, BLM, FlickrCC.

In 2019, Bangladesh became the first country to grant every one of its rivers environmental personhood. Meanwhile, California’s Yurok Tribe passed a resolution to declare legal personhood for the Klamath River, and a court in India’s Uttarakhand state bestowed the Ganges and Yamuna rivers with legal personhood, too.

One of the issues that arises in giving rivers similar rights as people, aside from its unpopularity with some local companies and agricultural plots, is the question of who takes responsibility. Suing groups for harming a river is costly and there has been much debate over who should cover the costs. In Ecuador, a number of green groups successfully sued a construction firm to stop it from building a road over the Vilcabamba River, but when the company continued with the project anyway, the groups were unable to afford a second case. Another issue is that some rivers extend across national borders.

These concerns have stirred doubts about the efficacy of environmental personhood in courts, but there’s no doubt that conversations arising because of the idea are changing the way they view the natural world. Granting rivers the legal rights of humans in court would create a more concrete foundation for their protection and it would prompt conversation around the conservation of these veins of the Earth.

CONTACTS: “Should Rivers Have Same Legal Rights As Humans?,”; “The Klamath River now has the legal rights of a person,”; “A Voice for Nature,”

Dear EarthTalk: What are the best Instagram feeds to follow lately if I’m into environmental activism and fighting climate change?                          ~ Bill S., New Orleans, LA

It’s amazing how dominant Instagram has become in the world of social media. Eco-advocates would be remiss to not make use of it to raise awareness and spur action on behalf of the planet. Given Instagram’s limited functionality, activists and groups have to be creative to make the most of the photo-dominant platform to stand out from the crowd. Here are a few of our favorite sustainability-oriented accounts:

Indigenous Climate Action uses its @indigenousclimateaction account to motivate and empower both youth and adults on climate activism by reminding them of the human connections to land, water, community, culture and the sense of responsibility towards future generations exemplified in Indigenous communities. Recent posts featured celebrations of indigenous knowledge, art and culture, and the group also hosts “virtual visits” and information-packed livestreams on Instagram.

Another enlightening account is @intersectionalenvironmentalist, which spreads awareness about how and why injustices happening to marginalized communities and planet health are connected. Posts focus on social justice, environmental justice, art, and community-building around inclusion and sustainability. The producers of the account also platform inspirational speakers on IGTV, Instagram’s video network.

Instagram is helping turn our cell phones into portals to activism on behalf of the planet. Credit: Jeremy Levin, Pexels.

If you’re looking for informative posts displayed in eye-catching styles, check out @futureearth, which cites all its sources and will keep you updated via a variety of different post styles. Their periodic Climate Talks feature informative videos with activists, educators, scientists and green business pioneers.

Meanwhile, activist Isaias Hernandez populates his @queerbrownvegan account with aesthetically-pleasing posts on environmental justice, veganism and zero-waste. One recent post defined “conscious consumerism” while another addressed why climate activists tend to burn out so young.

Another timely account to follow is @sunrisemvmt, the Instagram outlet for the Sunrise Movement. Organizers have used Instagram to spread their message to millions of young people who have in turn showed up at rallies, marches, sit-ins, Congressional visits and other direct-action events designed to lever those in power to make smart decisions with climate change, green jobs, sustainability and equity in mind.

Finally, @climemechange uses humor to lighten the mood within the climate movement. After all, laughter has been proven to boost antibody-producing cells, reduce stress and increase blood flow, all important to make sure we keep ourselves healthy while fighting the good fight. Following this account is a good way to fight the eco-depression and climate anxiety we all suffer from, even if just a little.

One way to be an eco-activist on Instagram is to share these accounts’ posts on your own stories, an easy way to spread awareness about the issues made possible by the social platforms we have today.

CONTACTS: Indigenous Climate Action,; Intersectional Environmentalist,; Future Earth,; Isaias Hernandez’ Queer Brown Vegan,; Sunrise Movement; Climemechange,

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