Where did the idea of granting legal personality to the Odra come from?
The Māori people, the indigenous population of New Zealand, have recognized the Whanganui River as their ancestor, relative, and person for centuries. Their efforts to protect the river have been ongoing for over 150 years. At first, white judges mocked their demands. In 2017, the Whanganui River, along with its surrounding areas, became the world’s first river to be recognized as a legal person. In the same year, Te Awa Tupua (Whanganui River Claims Settlement) was passed, in which the river was defined as a “source of ora (life, health, and well-being), a living whole.”
In the first half of August 2022, the media reported on an ecological disaster on the Odra, which covered several hundred kilometers of the river. As a result of water contamination, about 500 tons of fish, as well as mussels, birds, beavers, countless plants, died, and many sections of the river became dead zones. It is significant that the lives of river creatures are quantified, as if individual lives lose value. Numerous volunteers, activists, fishermen, and Fishery Guards spent days and nights retrieving dead animal bodies from the river. This prompted Robert Rient to write a petition and convene the Odra Tribe to take action to have the river recognized as a legal person.
The situation on the river had been deteriorating for years. Already in 2015, there were reports of an alarming rate of river pollution. Unfortunately, no action was taken to provide the river with necessary legal protection. Despite months passing since the contamination, the public has still not been informed of the specific factors that caused such immense damage, and therefore, it is unclear what their consequences will be in the future.
Who is a legal person (according to the Polish legal system)?
This term refers to the ability of individuals to be subjects of rights and obligations, as well as to carry out legal actions on their own behalf. Article 33 of the Polish Civil Code provides the following definition of legal personality: “Legal persons are the State Treasury and organizational units which are granted legal personality by special regulations.”
A legal person has full legal subjectivity, in particular the capacity to acquire legal rights and the capacity to carry out legal actions. Natural/physical persons acquire this capacity upon reaching the age of majority, while legal persons acquire it upon entry into the Polish National Court Register.
The law has created the concept of legal personality to protect companies, corporations, enterprises, firms, cooperatives, churches, universities, political parties, associations, and foundations. Being a legal person, that is, a subject, means having a value that can be protected, for example by appearing on its behalf before a court. The question for us is: if corporations are recognized as legal persons, why not recognize a living river as a legal person?
How is a legal entity created in Poland?
The creation of a legal personality can occur through:
- concession – the creation of a legal entity depends on a special permit from the authorities. This is how banks and insurers are created, for example,
- act of the state organ – legal personality is established by virtue of a law, executive acts or administrative acts. This is how state higher education institutions, for example, obtain legal personality,
- registration system – legal personality is established as a result of a submitted application to the registration authority, which subsequently confirms the fulfillment of certain conditions and enters the given entity (organ) into the register. In this way, commercial companies, cooperatives, foundations and associations are created.
Legal entities can be divided in two ways. One division indicates two groups of legal entities:
- Associations (corporations) – groups of a larger number of natural persons who become members of a given organization, such as the Polish Angling Association.
- Enterprises – created thanks to a certain contribution of assets, which is the basis for the organization’s activities. The purpose and method of operation are defined in the statute. Examples include higher education institutions, companies, museums and hospitals.
The second division distinguishes three types of legal entities:
- state-owned – the State Treasury and organizational units with legal personality that are wholly owned by the state.
- self-governmental and legal – municipalities, associations of municipalities and municipal legal persons established by the Act of March 8, 1990. This group also includes counties and voivodeships.
- other – these can be private legal entities owned by natural persons, cooperatives, associations, trade unions, foundations, churches and religious associations.
Is it at all possible to recognize the Oder River as a legal person in Poland?
The law evolves, just as our consciousness does. Not long ago, many men were surprised or even outraged by the idea of granting women the right to vote. The law ultimately recognized women as full-fledged beings. We want the law to mature and recognize life in the river as a living person. And although current Polish law does not provide for the recognition of the river as a legal person, this is more a story about the shape of the law than about the river’s right to life, free flow, clean water providing survival for its inhabitants and residents, and people.
Why a petition?
This is one of the ways to appeal to the highest state authorities to change the law and recognize the Oder River as a living river, a person entitled to legal representation and protection. A petition is one of the tools of influencing, but we are not deluding ourselves that it is sufficient. At the same time, a petition helps to gather people who are aware of the direct dependence of our lives on healthy, clean rivers that resemble veins, arteries, and the circulatory system more than transport routes, sewage, or exploited goods.
Why the Odra and what about the rest of the rivers in Poland?
Everything that is alive on our planet deserves protection. Everyone in a family, group, or tribe deserves protection. However, if one person in the family, group, or tribe has been raped, then they need special care and time to recover. Someone who will have the courage and willingness to carry them on their hands, or stand up for them, or at least provide them with peace, as much as possible. The Odra is our mistreated sister. The ecological disaster that hit her in 2022 and brought her to the brink of death prompted us to speak up on her behalf first.
If the Odra river is recognized as a legal person, will it have the same rights as a human being?
For the law, humans always come first. The river, as a legal person, will become a subject of law, a party to proceedings, and will gain legal capacities and representation similar to those belonging to a minor or incapacitated person who cannot defend themselves. However, it will still be dependent on the law shaped and determined by humans.
What rights and obligations would Odra have as a legal person?
Our first demand is to recognize Odra as a legal person. It is about changing the way we think, talk, and perceive the river, as well as the surrounding nature. The change involves recognizing nature rather as a partner and home, rather than a resource and landfill. We are currently analyzing legal solutions in other countries and creating a sensible legal proposal. The first of its rights would certainly be the right to life, which would take precedence over the endless exploitation of the Odra, allowing uncontrolled discharge of wastewater. The second would be the right to represent its interests in court.
If you want to participate in the legal work on creating the rights and obligations of Odra, we warmly invite you to cooperate with the legal group in our Tribe.
If Odra is recognized as a legal person, who will represent it?
To ensure that the recognition of Odra as a legal person is not merely symbolic or another legal gimmick, it must be represented by individuals who genuinely recognize the river as a person in itself. The recognition of the river as a person should come first: here is the river, a person, my relative. The next step is the recognition of Odra as a legal person and the appointment of a specific representation on its behalf, which cannot be a governmental or political representation, or at least not only a governmental or political representation.
In New Zealand, the Te Pou Tupua office is designated to represent the river, which consists of two people – one elected by the Whanganui tribe and the other by the New Zealand government. The guardians, or representatives of the river, are obligated to act on behalf of and for the benefit of the river.
In Canada, the Magpie River was recognized as a legal person to prevent the construction of additional dams. Magpie was granted nine rights, including the right to free flow, maintenance of biodiversity, and the ability to take legal action. According to the resolution, nine legal guardians were established to represent the river in court.
You can read more about legal solutions on the “Law” subpage.
“The key to protecting rivers is to provide them with proper representation. There is no justice when those affected by an issue cannot take a position or defend themselves when they are only the subject of consideration and evaluation, and not a subject of law.” – wrote lawyer Karolina Kuszlewicz.
Would legal personhood for the Odra river mean its privatization?
Will people still be able to sail on the Odra river?
No, the aim is definitely not to privatize the river. And yes, people will still be able to use the Odra for swimming or boating, while respecting the river.
The goal is not to manage the Odra like property, but to represent its interests. A sensible inspiration comes from the law in New Zealand. Since Whanganui was recognized as a legal person, it ceased to be the property of the state, but did not become the property of any individual, association, foundation or other organization. The law granted ownership “to itself” only “to the extent that ownership previously belonged to the state. Private owners were not expropriated”. This solution is based on strong foundations, which are also the basis of our commitment: the recognition of a reality in which the river, the human, the oak tree, the fly, the cat, the moss, the wolf, the meadow, the mountain, the forest, the St. John’s wort, the fish have the right to life and respect. This does not mean treating living and wild nature as standing higher or lower than humans. It is a recognition of a circle of interdependence in which we all exist. Recognizing the circle of life during the ongoing climate crisis is not only a way of life, but also a guiding principle that helps us seek answers to how to protect life on our planet, how to protect the future of the river and human, understanding that they are intertwined.
How do we finance our activities?
On August 20th, Robert Rient organized an open, free meeting for all those interested in recognizing the Odra River as a legal person. The Tribe of Odra was formed then, which operates to this day on the basis of voluntary involvement. We operate as volunteers. In October, we received our first grant in the amount of 15,000 PLN from Akcja Demokracja, which we used to build a website, create a documentary film, develop the concept and plan for the Great Odra March (which will start in the spring of 2023), and a billboard.
How can you get involved?
Sign the petition. Share the petition and our appeal. Tell your family and friends that the river is a person. Take a moment to recognize the river as a person and observe that it is a fascinating intellectual, emotional, and spiritual process. We also invite you to join the Odra Tribe – anyone who recognizes the Odra as a person can participate in our activities. We also invite you to participate in the March for the Oder River – details can be found in the “March” tabs.