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Right to flow in Florida

Voters in one county grant legal personhood to rivers

The Econlockhatchee River in Orlando, Fla. iStock.com/Jaymel Gonzalez

Right to flow in Florida

Nearly 90 percent of Orange County, Fla., voters last week chose to endow two local rivers with legal rights. So-called “rights of nature” environmentalists argue the county charter amendment will improve water quality in the region. The amendment grants the Wekiva and Econlockhatchee rivers legal personhood and the right “to exist, flow, to be protected against pollution and to maintain a healthy ecosystem.”

A later section of the amendment gives anyone within Orange County standing to bring legal action against anyone polluting the rivers. Typically, those bringing lawsuits must show they were harmed in order to sue. Critics say allowing activists to sue on behalf of the river could leave property owners, farmers, and businesses awash in legal fights. The language giving the rivers a right to flow could halt even mundane uses of the river, like using it for irrigation.

The broad language of the measure mirrors a larger push to grant legal personhood to bodies of water and other natural features. The rights of nature movement traces its history to a 1972 Southern California Law Review article titled “Should trees have standing?” by environmental activist and lawyer Christopher Stone.

The campaign has made headway internationally. In 2011, an activist lawsuit in Ecuador stopped a government highway project when a judge ruled the construction violated the rights of the Vilcabamba River to flow uninterrupted. In March 2017, a court in India declared the Ganges and Yamuna rivers “living entities” with legal rights. Weeks later, the same court granted rights and personhood to a pair of glaciers and a host of other environmental features. New Zealand granted legal personhood to a river in 2017.

The rights of nature movement has seen less success in the United States. In 2017, activist lawyer Jason Flores-Williams, alongside several radical environmental groups such as Deep Green Resistance, filed a suit in federal court on behalf of the Colorado River ecosystem. He dropped it after being informed the state of Colorado could sanction him for filing a frivolous lawsuit. In February 2017, voters in Toledo, Ohio, granted Lake Erie legal personhood in response to a toxic algae bloom caused by pollution runoff. But a state law reversed the charter amendment.

The Orange County ballot initiative may have a similar fate. Republican lawmakers in Tallahassee preemptively passed a law requiring people seeking to file lawsuits about environmental degradation in Florida courts to demonstrate harm.

John Dawson

John is a correspondent for WORLD. He is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute and the University of Texas at Austin, and he previously wrote for The Birmingham News. John resides in Dallas, Texas.


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