The Magpie River has become the first in Canada to be granted legal personhood rights, part of a growing global movement pushing for the Rights of Nature to be legally recognised. In accordance with local Innu customs and practices, the local municipality and council have granted the river nine rights: 1) the right to flow; 2) the right to respect for its cycles; 3) the right for its natural evolution to be protected and preserved; 4) the right to maintain its natural biodiversity; 5) the right to fulfil its essential functions within its ecosystem; 6) the right to maintain its integrity; 7) the right to be safe from pollution; 8) the right to regenerate and be restored; and perhaps most importantly, 9) the right to sue.
The Rights of Nature movement is rooted in indigenous beliefs and marks a major departure from the extractive assumptions that underlie capitalism and modern economies. Instead of treating nature as just property, or a resource, a natural entity or ecosystem is recognised to have constitutional rights in the same way that people and corporations do. This is fundamentally different to the parallel movement that seeks to protect nature by valuing it economically, because the underlying assumptions are so different. (Valuing nature economically can still exist within an extractive paradigm, because in this model nature remains a resource – just a more expensive one).
While it is not yet clear if legal personhood will successfully shift the paradigm of nature protection, that is the clear aim of the movement. In the case of the Magpie River, for example, legal personhood could now permanently rule out developments such as dams, as blatant contraventions of the river’s rights. Could such a shift be as momentous in the long term as other historical recognitions of rights, such as the abolition of slavery?