British Town Joins a Growing ‘Nature’s Rights’ Campaign

    13 September, 2019

    An English town is asking British officials to approve "legal personhood" for the river that runs through it.

    Frome is a market town in the county of Somerset. It has asked Britain's government to effectively give the River Frome human rights.

    In doing so, Frome has joined a worldwide "rights of nature" movement. In each case, communities are reimagining ways to use the law to defend the Earth's living tissues -- and the places they call home.

    Activist, environmentalist and community leader Peter Macfadyen stands next to a painted storage unit on the banks of the River Frome, in Frome, Britain, June 25, 2019. Picture taken June 25, 2019. REUTERS/Toby Melvill
    Activist, environmentalist and community leader Peter Macfadyen stands next to a painted storage unit on the banks of the River Frome, in Frome, Britain, June 25, 2019. Picture taken June 25, 2019. REUTERS/Toby Melvill

    Peter MacFadyen is the mayor of Frome. He and his supporters see their efforts 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," Macfadyen said. "It's about trying to change a mindset about the environment in which we live."

    The town has been waiting for months for an answer from the government.

    Supporters of the nature's rights see Frome as the first test case for the movement in Europe. But some in Frome are not so sure.

    Lawyer Neil Howlett lives by the river. Howlett says he supports many of the community-building steps taken by Macfadyen and other independent local politicians. But he sees the council's push for a "river's rights" bylaw as a distraction.

    "Having a law which is completely outside the cultural basis of the society in which you pass the law doesn't make for law that works," Howlett said. "It's lovely as an idea. But it's only lovely as an idea."

    'Programmed for self-destruction'

    Some indigenous peoples have long believed that rivers, mountains and lakes are in some sense living beings. In 1972, American Christopher Stone expressed the idea in modern-day legal terms.

    Stone wrote a book called Should Trees Have Standing?. In it, he argued that the best way to protect things in nature would be to give them the kinds of legal protections usually only offered to human beings.

    That idea is spreading. Campaigners won what is called the first "rights of nature" courtroom victory in Ecuador in 2011. In that case, judges stopped a road-widening project from leaving stones in the Vilcabamba River.

    Around the same time, Bolivia developed a vision of nature's rights in a law known as "The Law of the Rights of Mother Earth."

    In 2017, New Zealand's parliament became the first legislature to confirm a river's legal personhood. That same year, a high court in India ruled that the Ganga and Yamuna rivers had legal rights.

    Colombia's constitutional court made a similar move for the Atrato River basin, where communities face illegal gold mining and paramilitary violence.

    This summer, Bangladesh recognized the rights of all its rivers.

    Supporters see such rulings as an important part in moving away from the goal of economic growth while ignoring ecological harm.

    "The current system is programmed for self-destruction, and the legal system is the enabler," said lawyer Mumta Ito. She founded Nature's Rights, a Scotland-based advocacy group that has been advising Frome's town council.

    Ito added, "The only way we'll be able to change things is by creating a new operating system with nature's rights at its core."

    The world's waterways face growing pressure from the extremes of heat, rainfall and dry weather, all driven by climate change. Macfadyen argues any effort that helps people to look at nature differently is important.

    "We're in the situation we're in because we've misunderstood our position in the ecosystem," he said. "We can't do what we like. If we pour poison over everything, it comes back to bite us."

    I'm Ashley Thompson.

    The Reuters news agency reported this story. Ashley Thompson adapted it for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


    Words in This Story

    mayor - n. an official who is elected to be the head of the government of a city or town

    basis - n. something (such as an idea or set of ideas) from which another thing develops or can develop

    indigenous - adj. produced, living, or existing naturally in a particular region or environment

    distraction - n. something that makes it difficult to think or pay attention

    ecological - adj. related to a science that deals with the relationships between groups of living things and their environments

    advocacy - n. the act or process of supporting a cause or proposal : the act or process of advocating something

    ecosystem - n. everything that exists in a particular environment