Granting legal rights to nature
When the Halton regional council handed the centuries-old oak tree a death
sentence because it stood in the way of the Bronte Rd. widening, Joyce Burnell
had to pay to save it.
She needed to raise more than $300,000 to have the road paved around the
tree, instead of over top of it.
But what if that ancient tree, gnarled but beautiful and a healthy eight
storeys tall, had its own inviolable legal rights – a right to exist, for
instance – that, at the very least, Halton council would have had to consider
before it made the decision to cut it down?
"Well, 95 per cent of people would probably think of us as crazy, to think of
trees in that manner," Burnell, 87, says. "But I agree with it. You see a tree
by itself, and you don't realize it's that big. You have to get out of your car
and walk up and touch it. Then you realize that it has survived three centuries.
It just seems they do have life, so I think it's a good idea."
She adds with a giggle, "It could fight for itself, sue the people who want
to take it down."
Well, it could certainly have somebody act on its behalf, to fight for its
right to live. There would have to be a weighty hearing, balancing the needs of
the tree and its desire for survival, with the need for the region to widen the
road at the expense of the tree's existence.
Granting legal rights to nature, such as animals, trees, rivers and forests,
is a growing concept in environmental law – if not as explicit as giving a goat
in the Rocky Mountains legal standing in a Banff courtroom, then as a basic idea
upon which the field is expanding in our statutes and in legal bodies.