In figuring out how countries can reverse this environmental degradation and reduce conflicts, a lot can be learned from the indigenous view of rivers. Legal innovations that successfully incorporate this outlook could better protect rivers, essentially by giving them the same basic rights as people.
Because indigenous communities are on the front lines of environmental defence from China to El Salvador, it is often assumed that they are and will continue to be the obvious guardians of nature. But there are problems with this assumption. The indigenous of the world are not a homogenous group that inherently cares for nature.
Additionally, unless the law designates a specific community the legal representative of nature, as in New Zealand, there is no guarantee that the intended community will be the one that ends up speaking for nature.In Ecuador and Bolivia, the relevant legal texts use morally loaded language and rich references to indigenous communities that make clear the intended guardians of the nations’ natural treasures.
But standing is in fact granted broadly, and neither of the two legal cases settled in favour of nature to date in Ecuador was brought by an indigenous group. One suit was won by Americans (in the name of the Vilcabamba River) and the other, lodged on behalf of nature in San Lorenzo and Eloy Alfaro districts in 2011, was brought by the state, which sued to stop illegal small-scale mining operations in the area. The spirit of the law might have been violated in these cases, but the letter surely was not.
Ambiguous language could also permit abuse. In theory, given a sufficiently wide definition of standing and of nature, oil companies themselves could use the rights of nature to protect Ecuador’s hydrocarbon reserves.New Zealand’s narrower approach may prove more effective in the long run. By granting natural entities personhood one by one and assigning them specific guardians, over time New Zealand could drastically change an ossified legal system that still sees oceans, mountains and forests primarily as property, guaranteeing nature its day in court.