Montreal, Canada – Jean-Charles Pietacho says that the conviction that nature is a living thing that must be respected has been at the heart of the Innu way of life for generations.
But now that idea has been applied in a new way when the Innu Council of Ekuanitshit in February recognized the Magpie River, a 300 km (186 mile) waterway in the North Coast region of the Canadian province of Quebec, as a “legal person”. .
The designation – a first in Canada – aims to give the Indigenous community an additional tool to defend the river, known as Muteshekau Shipu in the Innu language, against potential environmental damage.
“The Creator put us on this piece of land called Nitassinan, which encompasses all these rivers, all these mountains, all these trees,” said Pietacho, head of the Innu Council of Ekuanitshit, in a telephone interview. “The Innu have always believed in protecting the land. It’s water – it’s life.
The Magpie River, which sits on the north shore of the St.Lawrence River and is known for its strong rapids, currently has a hydroelectric dam, but the provincial energy authority said it had no plans to further development on the waterway.
“Despite that, we didn’t feel safe, we didn’t have complete confidence,” said Pietacho.
“It is very, very important for us to achieve this protection. It could be tested, but at least we have a majority – if not the whole region – supporting us. “
La Pie is the first river in Canada to be granted legal personality rights – through two resolutions passed by the Innu Council of Ekuanitshit and a local organization, the Minganie Regional County Municipality – but it is not known what would happen if the designation were tested in a Canadian court.
Among other things, the resolution affirms the river’s “right to live, exist and flow”, to evolve naturally, to be protected from pollution, to maintain its integrity and to institute legal proceedings. He says “river keepers” will soon be appointed to ensure these rights are respected.
The move comes as a movement called “rights of nature” is gaining worldwide attention.
Supporters of the idea, put forward in a 1972 article by Christopher D Stone titled Should Trees Have Standing? Towards Legal Rights for Natural Objects, say current legal systems often fail to protect the environment.
Instead of treating nature as property within the meaning of law, they want it to have legal status on its own – in other words, legally enforceable rights similar to those of humans or businesses. Depending on how a specific case is defined, then the obligation falls on specific actors to ensure that nature’s legal rights are not violated.
Courts, various levels of government and other decision-making bodies in countries around the world have recognized the personality rights of ecosystems in different ways in recent years: in 2017, an Indian court ruled that the Ganges rivers and Yamuna should be granted the same legal rights as people. The Colombian Constitutional Court declared in 2016 that the Atrato River in the north-west of the country was a “subject of rights”.
More than a decade earlier, Ecuador, in its 2008 constitution, recognized the right of nature to exist, maintain and regenerate. “All people, communities, peoples and nations can ask public authorities to uphold the rights of nature,” the constitution reads.
Experts say indigenous communities around the world – where the idea that nature has inherent rights is old – have emerged at the forefront of many campaigns to grant human status to bodies of water and others. ecosystems.
“The rights of nature, in the Ecuadorian context, are very much linked to the worldviews of various indigenous groups… to emphasize the interdependence of ecosystems and the social world,” said Maria Akchurin, assistant professor of sociology at Loyola University in Chicago, which studied the case of Ecuador.
Akchurin told Al Jazeera that while Ecuador is one of the region’s major oil exporters and has a growing mining sector, it is also extremely rich in biodiversity – and constitutional recognition has come amid tensions under -jacent between economic development, environmental protection and the rights of indigenous peoples in the country.
Nature’s legal personality has so far been largely symbolic, she added, although it may give social groups and communities a new way of formulating their opposition to extractive projects, especially since the rights of nature began to be enforced by the courts. “But in terms of shutting down projects, it’s hard to say if it was really effective,” Akchurin said.
“I think it’s a great conversation to have, I think it’s extremely valuable and I think it can work in particular contexts; but we must also keep in mind that just having rights on paper does not necessarily translate into concrete change on the ground immediately. “
Perhaps the most important cases occurred in New Zealand, where the Whanganui River – the third longest river in the country, located on the North Island – was recognized as a “legal entity” in 2017 as part of a negotiated settlement between the government and the Maori people. The legal entity, called Te Awa Tupua, “has all the rights, powers, duties and responsibilities of a legal person,” the agreement reads.
Three years earlier, also in negotiations with Maori leaders, New Zealand also recognized Te Urewera, a former national park, as a “legal entity”. He also made an agreement in 2017 with the Maori tribes to recognize Taranaki Mountain on the North Island as a person. Negotiations for the implementation of the latter agreement are ongoing.
Jacinta Ruru, professor of law at the University of Otago and co-director of Nga Pae o te Maramatanga, the New Zealand Maori Research Center of Excellence, said she did not see these examples as part of the movement. environmental “rights of nature”.
In the New Zealand context, legal personality arose out of a hopeful reconciliation with indigenous, Maori peoples, and not out of a right to nature. [perspective]Ruru told Al Jazeera.
The Te Awa Tupua and Te Urewera agreements clearly define the legal rights, obligations and decision-making bodies responsible for monitoring the legal personality status of ecosystems. In the case of the river, the Government of New Zealand and the Maori Tribal Federation each chose one person to speak on its behalf.
“From a Maori perspective, it comes very naturally,” said Ruru, explaining that Maori have always referred to rivers or mountains “as their ancestors and that we should respect them, as their health and well-being. are totally related to health. and well-being of us as individuals and of our community ”.
Ruru added that New Zealand’s agreements demonstrate that countries can better enable indigenous people to participate in land and water management. “It’s not the indigenous people necessarily saying something new, it’s just that other people are listening now.”
In other countries, some have expressed concerns about how nature legal personality is applied. In Bangladesh, where the country’s highest court in 2019 granted all rivers the same legal rights as people, some say without a clear framework for implementation, the decision could facilitate the eviction of poor communities living outside the rivers. Waterways.
“The New Zealand decision has recognized communities as stakeholders, and this is essential,” Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of the South Asian network on dams, rivers and people, told Reuters news agency in the time.
Meanwhile, in the United States, legal personality cases have met with fierce opposition. A court in the US state of Ohio last year declared unconstitutional the Lake Erie Bill of Rights, adopted by the city of Toledo in 2019, which recognized the “right of the lake to exist, to flourish. and to evolve naturally ”. A farmer had taken legal action, claiming the move was an “unconstitutional and illegal assault” against family farms.
Another lawsuit aimed at having the Colorado River ecosystem recognized by a court as “capable of possessing rights similar to a ‘person'” as well as “the right to exist, to flourish, to regenerate and to regenerate. evolve naturally ”was withdrawn in 2017 after pressure from state authorities. .
“At the time, the Attorney General [office] was led by a Republican, so they threatened me with sanctions and deregistration, ”Jason Flores-Williams, the lawyer who brought the case, told Al Jazeera. He said officials argued “it is ridiculous to assert the rights of nature and nature’s personality.”
Nevertheless, efforts to grant legal personality to nature are gaining in importance.
Returning to Montreal, Yenny Vega Cardenas, president of the International Observatory for the Rights of Nature, said the recognition of the Magpie River had caught the interest of people across Canada and abroad, who have since called to ask if their local rivers could also get personality rights.
She said a shift in thinking is underway – and with each successful case, more and more communities are considering the idea. “We have realized the weaknesses of our system,” she told Al Jazeera. “And if we don’t change now, when?” We can’t wait any longer.