Legal personality for Great Barrier Reef

Environmental Defenders Office of Northern Queensland

Chain Reaction #120, March 2013,

As concern for the health of the Great Barrier Reef grows, the Environmental Defenders Office of Northern Queensland (EDO NQ) is launching a campaign aimed at bestowing legal personality on the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. This campaign comes as the World Heritage Committee assesses whether to list the Great Barrier Reef as 'in danger'. The decision to dump millions of tonnes of dredge spoil within the boundaries of the Marine Park Area has recently been announced – and as a consequence the world community is becoming increasingly worried about the extent of port and shipping expansion in the area.

'Legal personality' means that a person or entity has rights and duties in law. These rights commonly include the right to be free from unlawful interference, and the rights to exist, persist and reproduce. Where the rights of a legal person or entity are breached, they have the right to seek enforcement and a remedy through the legal system. The most common example of an entity other than a natural person having legal personality is that of a corporation. Corporations are allowed to enforce their legal rights in court, in their own name, through representatives acting on their behalf.

In granting legal personality to the Great Barrier Reef, Australia would give the Reef a certain set of rights and the ability to uphold these rights in court.

The concept of rights for the environment rests on the idea that a property-based approach to the environment has failed. Western property law regards the environment as a resource for us to exploit as we please. Any value placed on the environment is measured in terms of the value that we can derive from its use. Giving the environment rights is about recognising that these resources aren't endless and that we are part of (and dependent upon) our environment. EDO NQ is not proposing to determine what rights should be given to the Great Barrier Reef − this is a matter for the community, to be decided after extensive consultation.

So far in Australia there have as yet been no instances of natural systems being granted legal personality. However, the New Zealand Government has agreed that the Whanganui River will be given legal personality, and there is a Bill currently before Parliament to bestow legal personality on Te Urewera National Park. In 2007−08, Ecuador rewrote its Constitution to include the rights of nature to 'exist, persist, maintain itself and regenerate', as well as to be restored where it is damaged. In 2010, Bolivia passed a law recognising the rights of Mother Earth.

Australia now has to opportunity to build on the rights that have been granted to the environment in other countries. Australia might consider granting the Reef the right to exist and flourish, as well as the right to restoration. This is a non-exhaustive list, and the Australian public can (and should) be creative in incorporating rights to suit the specific challenges and unique situation of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area.

Just as corporations are represented by Directors, EDO NQ suggests that the Reef could be represented by a board of trustees, legally required to act in the best interests of the Reef. A board of trustees might be made up of members appointed by a variety of groups and organisations with an interest in the ongoing wellbeing of the Reef. These may include trustees nominated by the World Heritage Committee, Traditional Owners, the Queensland and Commonwealth governments, as well as appointees from tourism industry, environment and conservation bodies.

Granting legal personality to the Great Barrier Reef would have little effect on the way the Reef is run day-to-day. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority would still oversee everyday activities on the reef, tourist operators would continue their business as usual and tourists would continue to enjoy the beauty of the Reef. The major difference is that the Reef would have representation for its interests in major decisions, ensuring that relevant Commonwealth and State agencies perform their environmental protection functions consistently and effectively. The trustees would also have power to enforce the Reef's rights if these were not respected by Government.

EDO NQ proposes that the best way to show Australia's support for rights for the Great Barrier Reef is through a non-binding, nation-wide referendum (also called a plebiscite). To this end, we have started a petition, available at (search for the phrase 'legal personality'). A direct link to the petition is also available on our website (

For more information on the processes and reasons for obtaining legal personality for the Reef, please visit remember, you can immediately help this process by signing the petition to hold a national vote on legal personality for the Reef and by donating to EDO NQ (