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Mother Nature

Movement Aims to Give Nature Legal Standing

Wednesday, January 14, 2009 by: David Gutierrez, staff writer
Tags: Mother Nature, health news, Natural News


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(NaturalNews) A growing number of environmentalists and legal scholars are arguing that non-humans such as trees, rivers and animals should have legal standing to defend their rights in court, and that humans should be able to bring lawsuits on their behalf.

"If I've got a right to life, you have a duty not to kill me," said Cormac Cullinan, a South African environmental lawyer and the author of "Wild Law".

"If one thinks of other species in the same way ... they would at least have the right to exist, and therefore a fundamental right to play their part in the evolutionary story," he said.

In law, the term "standing" refers to whether a person has been personally harmed and is therefore entitled to redress in court. With nature, the question centers less on the harm than on the right to be heard in court.

Granting legal standing to nature was first proposed by Christopher Stone, a University of Southern California professor, in 1972.

"Stones' article was a hugely innovative piece at the time and remains one of the touchstone pieces when you think about how we could do better in making environmental law," said environmental law scholar Jutta Brunnée of the University of Toronto. "But not a lot of progress has been made anywhere in that direction."

Since that first article, the ability of individuals and organizations to bring suits on behalf of nature has been expanded. But courts still decide those cases based on human interest, not the rights of plants or animals.

"It hasn't gotten to the point where you can say, `I'm worried about the marmots in the Rockies, I'm bringing an action on their behalf,'" Brunnée said. "It would be cast in terms of what is the interest of the general public in preserving this or that."

And while the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals wrote in 1988 that the endangered Hawaiian Palila honeycreeper "has legal status and wings its way into federal court as a plaintiff in its own right," the same court backtracked on that language in 2004. Writing on the case Cetacean Community v. Bush, the court dismissed its 1988 language as simply a "rhetorical flourish."

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