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Tribe Gives River ‘Personhood Rights’ to Fight Climate Change


The Yurok Tribe, or “downriver people” of northwestern California where the Klamath River meets the Pacific Ocean, have declared that the river now has the “rights of personhood.”

The tribe’s decision took place in the spring, but media are reporting its relevance because of the climate change agenda of the left, including the United Nations, High Country News reported:

The Yurok’s resolution, passed by the tribal council in May, comes during another difficult season for the Klamath; over the past few years, low water flows have caused high rates of disease in salmon, and canceled fishing seasons.

With the declaration, the Yurok Tribe joins other Indigenous communities in a growing Rights of Nature movement aimed at protecting the environment. Last year, the White Earth Band of Ojibwe adopted the Rights of Manoomin to protect wild rice manoomin — and the freshwater sources it needs to survive in Minnesota. And in 2017, the New Zealand government adopted the Rights of the Whanganui River, stemming from a treaty process with Māori iwis, or tribes, that gives the river its own legal standing in court.

“By granting the rights of personhood to the Klamath River, not only does it create laws and legal advocacy routes, but it’s also an expression of Yurok values,” said Geneva Thompson, associate general counsel for the tribe and citizen of the Cherokee Nation, who worked on the resolution. “The idea is that the laws of a nation are an expression of the nation’s values.”

So the river joins rice — the first plant species — to have the legal rights of people although to date no court test has taken place.

High Country News reported that the Yurok resolution on the Klamath River is modeled after the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, “which enshrines the right of Indigenous people to conserve and protect their lands and resources.”

“Legal personhood provides a different framework for dealing with problems like pollution, drought and climate change,” High Country News reported. “The crucial aspect to establishing these legal frameworks, Indigenous lawyers say, involves shifting relationships and codifying Indigenous knowledge — in other words, recognizing non-human entities not as resources, but as rights-holders.”

“From New Zealand to Colombia, the powerful idea that nature has rights is taking root in legal systems,” David Boyd, U.N. special rapporteur on human rights and the environment, said of the Yurok Tribe’s resolution. “We must no longer view the natural world as a mere warehouse of commodities for humans to exploit, but rather a remarkable community to which we belong and to whom we owe responsibilities.”

“The idea of having legal avenues to address the harms of climate change is an important next step as legal systems adapt to the climate crisis,” Thompson said. “It shifts the conversation, and it shifts the value system because you see the environment has a right to be clean and protected for the environments’ sake.”

National Radio Public (NPR) interviewed Amy Cordalis, Yurok Tribe member and its general counsel.

“What does the status of personhood mean for a river?” NPR asked in the interview.

“What it means is it gives the right to the river to exist, to flourish and to naturally evolve and a right to a stable climate free from human-caused climate change impacts,” Cordalis said. “What that means is that anytime the river is hurt, for example, there’s a toxic pollutant that is, gets into the water of the river, we could then bring a cause of action against that polluter to protect the river.”

Cordalis said since the “invasion in the 1800s” the river has been threatened.