Dr Elizabeth Macpherson
University of Canterbury
Legal models that recognise or declare rivers and related ecosystems to be legal persons or legal subjects have emerged as an available tool for settling indigenous and grassroots disputes with governments over natural resource management, either via legislation or judicial decision. In the ‘end times’ of nature in which we find ourselves, in which climate change impacts accelerate and biodiversity declines at ever-increasing rate, one thing common to legal person models is a threatened natural resource and a failure by existing laws and institutions to protect that resource effectively from development. As such, legal person models are growing from the roots up, as a new mechanism to encourage governments to provide more effective, and collaborative, natural resource management, sometimes at the insistence of indigenous peoples. One place where the recognition of rights for rivers and related ecosystems is developing particularly quickly is in Colombian constitutional law, and it is now a fair observation that the transnational concept of legal rights of rivers is being shaped by the Colombian experience. Other indigenous peoples and local communities watching the Colombian developments may well ask: can legal rights for rivers help us to demand better and more collaborative river and ecosystem management within our traditional areas? In this paper I examine the foundation and future of legal rights for rivers in Colombian constitutional law to reveal important clues as to possible inroads for better protection of river interests elsewhere, both environmental and cultural.
Dr Elizabeth Macpherson is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Canterbury Law School where she teaches resource management law, indigenous rights, human rights, comparative law and legal ethics. Her research interests are in comparative natural resources law and indigenous rights in Australasia and Latin America. Her forthcoming book, Indigenous Water Rights in Law and Regulation: Lessons from Comparative Experience, will be published by Cambridge University Press in 2019. Elizabeth is the Editor of the Canterbury Law Review and a member of the United Nations Knowledge Network on Harmony with Nature and World Commission for Environmental Law, an Advisory Board member for the Lawrence Anthony Earth Organisation, and a representative on the Banks Peninsula Water Zone Committee. Elizabeth has practised as an indigenous rights and natural resources lawyer in New Zealand, Australia and Chile, advising indigenous communities, developers and government.