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This Country Gave All Its Rivers Their Own Legal Rights

Bangladesh is sometimes known as the “land of the rivers.” It’s got hundreds of them — and over the years, they’ve been getting more and more polluted. But as of early July, every single one of them has a remarkable new level of protection: The Bangladeshi Supreme Court has given all rivers in the country legal rights.Now, people who damage a river can get taken to court by the government-appointed National River Conservation Commission. They’ll be tried as if they’d harmed a living entity, because each river now has the right to life. That means the river’s government-designated human representatives can sue on its behalf when it’s being endangered. Bangladesh isn’t the first place to pass such a law. In the US, Ohio voters in February granted Lake Erie the legal right to “exist, flourish, and naturally evolve,” and recent years have also seen national and state laws granting rights to rivers and forests from New Zealand to India to Colombia. It’s all part of the nascent “rights of nature” movement, which argues that instead of viewing nature as property to be owned, we should recognize that it has its own inalienable rights similar to the ones we enjoy. Activists in the movement want us to give the environment a more central place in humanity’s expanding moral circle — the imaginary boundary we draw around those we consider worthy of moral consideration. But even among the countries that have embraced the rights of nature, Bangladesh now stands out as having done something unprecedented. “What’s unique about Bangladesh is that they declared all rivers to have this status,” said Ben Price, the national director for the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), a nonprofit public interest law firm that helps people facing threats to their local environment. By contrast, other countries have granted rights only to individual bodies of water.“In Bangladesh, the river is considered as our mother,” Mohammad Abdul Matin, general secretary of the Dhaka-based environmental group Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon, told NPR. “The river is now considered by law, by code, a living entity, so you’ll have to face the consequence by law if you do anything that kills the river.”The country already had fines in place to discourage people from harming the waterways, but those penalties weren’t working well enough to prevent pollution, illegal dredging, and the encroachment of human settlements. The Supreme Court hopes its landmark ruling will change that. Noting that “water is likely to be the most pressing environmental concern of the next century,” it called for rivers to be protected “at all costs.” That’s music to the ears of environmentalists, but others argue that granting rights to rivers does come with real costs, and that they’re too high. With more communities getting interested in enshrining the rights of nature in law — Price said that activists in Europe, Asia, and Australia have reached out to CELDF for help — now is a good time to explore the difficulties that are likely to arise as this movement spreads. Three problems with enforcing the rights of natureEven as the rights of nature movement has inspired new legislation around the world, it’s also made clear how ill-equipped governments are to enforce it. For one thing, once a river gets rights, what happens to all the people who live off it? In Bangladesh, millions — fishers, farmers, and their families — live in informal settlements or slums alongside the rivers and depend on the waters for their livelihoods. Now some are being evicted.“The government must take stock of poor communities who need resettlement or protection from industries and real estate developers,” said Matin. “If enacted well, the verdict will be helpful in returning the rivers to the people who have historically depended on them.”It’s also important to note that in some countries where these laws have been enacted, including Bangladesh, nature may now enjoy more rights than some humans in those societies do. Bangladesh is currently hosting hundreds of thousands of refugees who have been driven out of neighboring Myanmar; these refugees, many of them women and children, lack legal status in Bangladesh and are restricted from attending Bangladeshi schools or working. The Bangladeshi government is also trying to find ways to get rid of the refugee population — through forced repatriation to Myanmar or sending refugees to a remote island accessible only by boat. Local officials have sought to justify this by saying the refugees are destroying the local environment.A second problem is jurisdictional. Rivers don’t obey borders — they often traverse more than one country. If a certain country has granted rights to a river but a neighboring country hasn’t, that makes it difficult to legally protect the waterway from environmental harm. Bangladeshi environmental activists are already talking about how they won’t be able to compel India to comply with the new law on rivers.Children collect plastic bottles from a polluted river in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Kazi Salahuddin Razu/NurPhoto via Getty ImagesIndia itself dealt with this conundrum after the high court in Uttarakhand state granted personhood status to the Ganges and Yamuna rivers in 2017, appointing the state government as the rivers’ legal guardian. The state government soon challenged ...Read more

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