In 2017, multiple claims and declarations from around the legal world appeared to signal a tipping point in the global acceptance of a new and evolving legal status for nature. Whether it was litigation in the United States, India, and Colombia, or legislation emanating from New Zealand and Australia, the law seems to be grappling with a new normative order in relation to the legal status of nature. However, this shift has been a long time coming, being at least forty- five years since Christopher Stone famously asked whether trees should have legal standing.
This Article explores what this emerging Ecological Jurisprudence means for the legal personhood of rivers. Nature, the environment, and even single complex ecosystems, are seldom easily quantifiable as bounded entities with geographically clear borders. Within the complex spectrum of establishing where a legal subject ends and another begins, however, rivers are more easily identifiable. A river’s very being is premised on historicized boundaries that measure its watery ambit from riverbed to riverbank. Still, rivers elude a final, clearly defined, and uncontroversial description. As a result, they inhabit a liminal space, one that is at the same time geographically bounded, yet metaphorically transcendent, physically shifting, and culturally porous.
Drawing on comparative case studies from Ecuador, Colombia, India, New Zealand, the United States, and Australia, this Article explores the deep and often murky bond of the river and us. This relational, ancient, and ultimately environmentally urgent bond forms the prism through which the rich story of legal personhood, ontological change, and the consequential nitty-gritty of river governance is told. Indeed, this complex story is best heard through the metaphor of song, since “[i]f we are to take metaphor seriously, we must explore its poetic dimension, the persuasive power of its rhetoric, coupled with its aesthetic appeal.” In seeking to discern a river’s legal personality, we ask, can we hear the rivers sing?