Residents on the shores of Lake Erie, the 11th largest lake in the world, have voted in favour of handing the body of water the same legal rights as a human being in potentially revolutionary legislation.
The measure – which passed with nearly two thirds of the vote in the lakeside city of Toledo, Ohio – guarantees the right of Lake Erie to “exist, flourish, and naturally evolve” free from pollution, and affords the local community the power to sue anyone who should breach those rights on the lake’s behalf.
Lake Erie, the fourth largest of the Great Lakes, joins a host of other natural habitats in the likes of New Zealand, Colombia and India, to have their rights recognised in law, but represents the first instance in the US.
The Lake Erie Bill of Rights states that Lake Erie, which provides drinking water to 12 million people in the US and Canada, and is responsible for feeding Niagara Falls, “has suffered for more than a century under continuous assault and ruin due to industrialisation”. The bill warns that the lake, which has Detroit, Cleveland and Buffalo on its shores, is in “imminent danger of irreversible devastation”.
“There is a shift occurring,” a CELDF representative, which helped write the bill, told Telegraph Travel, “such that more people and communities, and even governments, are recognising that protecting nature – recognising it as having legal rights of its own that need to be defended and enforced – can also be good for people and the economy.”
The environmental issues at the heart of Lake Erie, which is deemed the most at-risk of the Great Lakes due to being the shallowest and in a populated, industrialised area, are the result of fertiliser run-off from local agriculture, invasive fish species and toxic algae.
In 2014, 500,000 Toledo residents were left without water for two days after algae contaminated the city’s water supply. Images showed what was supposed to be potable water thick with green sludge.
Farmers have opposed the bill, claiming that the measure could hit thousands of small businesses should they be sued for damaging the lake, though there is no way of knowing how the legislation might stand up in court. “Our concern remains that its passage means Ohio farmers, taxpayers and businesses now face the prospect of costly legal bills fighting over a measure that likely will be found unconstitutional and unenforceable,” Adam Sharp, from the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, said.
But campaigners see the move as a victory for the protection of the environment. “No matter what happens, we’re feeling very proud of what we’ve done,” Markie Miller, from Toledoans for Safe Water told local newspaper the Blade, adding that she was “so tired of the inaction we’ve seen”.
The idea of affording nature rights dates back to a case in 1972, when an environmental organisation, the Sierra Club, tried to block development of a ski resort in the Sierra Nevada mountains. The attempt failed, but in a subsequent opinion by the presiding judge, Justice Douglas, he asserted that natural resources had a right to standing to sue for their own protection.
He wrote: “Before these priceless bits of Americana (such as a valley, an alpine meadow, a river, or a lake) are forever lost or are so transformed as to be reduced to the eventual rubble of our urban environment, the voice of the existing beneficiaries of these environmental wonders should be heard.”
In 2014 New Zealand noted the rights of the Te Urewera forest, while in 2017 Colombia recognised the Rio Atrato river, and India the Ganges and Yamuna rivers. Colombia last year also granted rights to its swathe of Amazon rainforest in cases against the government.
In 2011 the legal rights of nature won one of its first tests in a court in Ecuador, when an injunction was granted on behalf of the Vilcabamba River against the regional government of Loja over a road-widening project.
“The Lake Erie law is critically important in building this movement,” said a CELDF representative. “Demonstrating why it is necessary to protect this deeply harmed ecosystem and establish the highest level of protection through the recognition of legal rights. It further demonstrates how important it is for people within a community to have the authority to protect the environment where they live.”
She said that in the UK, CELDF had recently visited Northern Ireland to meet with groups and communities “facing significant environmental threats from proposed gold mining, industrial factory farming and other potential harms”.
Last week County Tyrone residents had their challenge to proposed gold mines in the Sperrin Mountains rejected by a judge.
A CELDF representative said: “In Northern Ireland, ecosystems are deeply threatened by the corporatization of the landscape, and our discussions focused on how to change that – to put the protection of the ecosystems upon which people and all life depend through the recognition of legal rights of nature.”