This story was originally posted by WNIJ and is republished with permission.
The Mississippi River flowed lazily under the Centennial Bridge, which connects Illinois and Iowa in the Quad Cities. Cars drove by on a Saturday afternoon in early May, waving and occasionally honking at a long line of environmentalists who say the river is alive.
Glenda Guster was among about 80 people to join the Great Plains Action Society River Rights March – the centerpiece of a three-day summit earlier this month for Black and Indigenous organizers of entire Mississippi River Basin, who, among other things, want to give the river legal status.
Like many others who have crossed the river, Guster, who held a sign saying “water is life” above his head, said the river needed more protection.
“The river has rights, just like human rights,” Guster said. “Nature has rights and it is up to us to preserve these rights.”
According to Sikowis Nobis, the founder of the indigenous rights organization, the aim of the summit was to form a river-wide coalition to rethink the legal framework which they say is jeopardizing life on and in the Mississippi River. According to her, the existing legal system cannot cope with the kinds of environmental disasters that are increasingly imminent – but the “rights of nature” could.
The idea is that natural entities like rivers, trees and wildlife have the same rights as humans and therefore have legal status in court. Natural entities, according to the legal principle, constitute living beings with legally enforceable rights to existence that transcend the category of property.
“The land is really hurting, and the rights of nature would essentially give the river a personality,” Nobis said. “It would allow us to have more power to keep him safe.”
The legal movement to grant natural features such as forests and rivers the same legal rights as humans has won significant success abroad and has gained momentum in recent years in the United States. Largely Indigenous-led campaigns to recognize the legal rights of natural entities like wild rice in Minnesota, salmon in Washington, and the Klamath River in northern California are setting the stage for a nascent Mississippi River movement.
The implications of the rights of nature as a legal instrument are considerable. Companies could be sued for damaging ecosystems, and construction projects that could cause environmental damage could be stopped.
This is exactly what happened in Tamaqua, a small town in Pennsylvania. Thomas Linzey is a senior lawyer at Center for Democratic and Environmental Rights and drafted the document granting rights to small boroughs.
“It may be a radical concept, or it was 20 years ago, but we’re quickly getting to a place where without this kind of new system of environmental law, we’re all kind of finished, we’re kind of cooked,” Linzey said.
Ultimately, residents were able to prevent the dumping of sewage sludge in Tamaqua using the new ordinance.
Linzey said that before the nature rights movement entered the mainstream, it grew out of Indigenous peoples’ cosmologies that recognized that the natural world was made up of living things — not just resources. or goods.
In 2008, Linzey consulted with the Ecuadorian government when drafting its new constitution, the first in the world to ratify the Rights of Nature. In 2021, an Ecuadorian municipality appealed to constitutional protections to revoke mining permits it said violated nature’s rights in the endangered Los Cedros rainforest.
“The work has expanded to other countries, and in the United States to about more than three dozen municipalities at this point,” Linzey said.
Ecuador remains the only country in the world to have enshrined the rights of nature in its constitution. A similar proposal was considered in Chile last year, and the island nation of Aruba is currently considering its own amendment dealing with inherent rights in nature. Court decisions in countries like Bangladesh, Colombia and Uganda have successfully upheld the rights of nature. Local laws and treaties recognizing the rights of nature are emerging around the world, especially in the United States
Lance Foster, a member of the Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska and speaker at the top of the Mississippi River, said that a few years ago the success of nature rights in South America made his tribe think and others, why not us?
“And we wondered why didn’t the big rivers, like the Missouri River and the Mississippi River, get those rights?” said Foster.
He said his tribe and others created an intertribal resolution for Missouri River rights. They hope to use it to combat industrial scale farming and deep mining operations.
“If Mississippi had those rights recognized … it might have standing to sue for an attorney on its behalf to help clean it up,” Foster said.
Two years ago in Minnesota, the White Earth Band of Ojibwe sued Enbridge Line 3 over in the name of wild rice, called Manoomin. And last month, the city of Seattle settled a case with the Sauk-Suiattle Indian Tribe. on the assertion that the salmon had the right to spawn, among other rights.
Because the Mississippi and Missouri rivers flow through so many states and tribal lands, experts said securing legal status for them in court would be extremely complicated.
But Foster said if companies get legal rights in the US, why not rivers? After all, they were here long before humans.
States such as Idaho, Florida and Ohio have decided to preemptively prohibit the possibility that nature or ecosystems can have legal status. Even so, Foster said the rights of nature were not as unthinkable as they once were. After all, children, women, blacks and indigenous people have been disenfranchised once too – which stops the river.
“It gives us a chance,” Foster said. “Now, are we going to take this chance as a society? I’m doubtful most of the time, but we have to keep trying, we have to keep going until the end. »
This story is a product of Mississippi River Basin Bureau of Agriculture and Wateran editorially independent reporting network based in University of Missouri School of Journalism in partnership with Report for America and the Society of Environmental Journalistsfunded by the Walton Family Foundation.