Thursday, July 7

Laws of Nature: Could UK Rivers Have the Same Rights as People? | Rivers

TThe River Frome murmurs and babbles through the woods and fields of North Somerset. It is popular with wild fishermen and swimmers, but is often contaminated with a cocktail of agricultural runoff, leading to frequent complaints from the public.

In 2018, the Frome City Council attempted to pass an ordinance granting part of the river and the adjacent Rodden meadow legal entity status. This would establish their right to exist, flourish and prosper as the river flows freely and has a natural water cycle, as well as ensuring a timely and effective restoration if damaged. The city council and a local charity, Friends of the river Frome, they would become joint guardians of the river and the prairie, tasked with balancing their interests with the health and safety of the local population.

The ordinance was rejected in 2020, but the fight to grant rights to the UK’s rivers continues today. On the eve of the summer solstice, members of the Cambridge community group Friends of the Cam held a ceremony to establish rights to their river based on the Earth Law Center Universal Declaration of River Rights. By sharing songs and stories about people’s individual connections to the river, they declared that the Cam had the right to flow, to be free from excessive abstraction and pollution, and to be home to native biodiversity, and designated themselves as its guardians.

“I think it’s great to keep this idea alive,” says Frome Councilor Richard Ackroyd. “It is possible, it is not an airy fairy idea without possibility. It could be a reality and wouldn’t that change things? “

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The idea of ​​granting rights to nature has been around for years; Laws granting natural features such as rivers and mountains, or ecosystems, legal personality have been enacted around the world, from Ecuador to New Zealand, and have recently been the subject of the first enforcement case in the US. no such law in the UK.

Activists have tentatively explored the rights of British rivers such as the Thames and Findhorn in northeast Scotland, but efforts in Frome have been the most advanced.

Mumta Ito, a lawyer and founder of the NGO Nature’s Rights that seeded the idea of ​​the statute as a test case, says it would have set an important legal precedent. “Environmental law addresses the things that are illegal. The goal of the rights of nature is to address all of the nature-destroying things that are legal but not aligned with a regenerative culture. The real problem in the Frome is diffuse pollution, so if the river had received rights, how would agriculture have to change to respect those rights? ”.

The river Frome in polluted conditions, August 2020
The river Frome in polluted conditions, August 2020. Photography: Sue Everett

The ordinance would have made it easier for people and local authorities to take action when the river’s ecosystem was damaged, Ackroyd says. “What I liked was that it takes away the idea that the only influence you have is if you are a large landowner or if your property has been damaged in some way.”

He said that the response to the proposed ordinance had been overwhelmingly positive in the city council and among the public, but since the city could not pass such a law on its own, it had to seek approval from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. .

The request was rejected last year on the grounds that it would duplicate existing environmental laws. “But of course it wouldn’t, because the radical change is that it is not really based on property rights,” says Ackroyd.

Ito is skeptical of the UK’s readiness for such a fundamental cultural shift. “At its roots, the rights of nature are about a great restructuring, because the concentration of wealth and power happened on the basis of property rights, which was a system of exclusion. If private property was subject to the rights of the ecosystems that inhabit that property, then it is not free for trash and burning, it comes with a duty of care. “

“This country is going to be a bit of a bone to break,” agrees Paul Powlesland, a lawyer at Garden Court Chambers and founder of the NGO Lawyers for Nature, which is interested in promoting the rights of nature in the UK. “In many ways we came up with, and exported around the world, the idea of ​​nature as something dead to be exploited.”

He points out that even existing laws to protect nature, particularly rivers, are being “fundamentally ignored,” and that the institutions charged with defending them are failing. In addition to being affected by agricultural waste, the Frome is one of the many rivers in the country that has been contaminated with sewage due to overflowing drainage systems, a problem highlighted by The Guardian.

But the law is not immutable, says Powlesland. “Over the years there has been a gradual extension of who is the subject rather than the object of legal rights.” Once the exclusive domain of wealthy white men, rights have gradually expanded to include all human beings. “We even managed to figure out how to grant rights to [companies] before discovering how to grant rights to the living beings on which we depend for our own existence. “

It is notable that many countries that have passed nature rights laws have strong indigenous cultures in which nature is a fundamental principle and has intrinsic value.

“We have lost our indigenous voice,” says Powlesland, “but I believe that we can all return to a deeper relationship with nature and these lands. The current political system may not be as susceptible to a radical concept as the rights of nature, but any law could be changed to any other if parliament wanted to. “

Ito is more cautious. A few years ago, she managed to convince all the green parties in the UK to support the principle of the rights of nature, but is disappointed that the commitment to these rights has not appeared in the manifestos and has not had much political force.

Indeed, in the two years it took for the UK government to make a decision on the Frome ordinance, Ito made “much more progress” at the EU level. She was invited to conduct a study on the rights of nature for the European Economic and Social Council and is now debating an EU charter on the fundamental rights of nature.

“In fact, they are engaging in conversation with us about it,” he says. “Here in the UK, you get a single line from the secretary of state and that’s it. There is no one I can talk to; it’s a closed store. “

A brown trout in the river Frome.
A brown trout in the river Frome. The river is popular with fishermen, but it is often polluted. Photograph: FLPA / Alamy

Undaunted, Powlesland is working on a set of tools to help people imagine and enforce the rights of nature within the current legal framework. “I see more people clearly expressing their love for nature and their desire to protect it. The magic of this discourse on the rights of nature is that it takes a lot of the things that people are already doing (there are some incredible activists doing excellent work across the country) and puts them in a framework that has power.

“If enough people started to peacefully defend nature at the national level, regardless of the current rules, that would change those rules,” he says.

The rights of nature around the world

Canada: Canada’s first nature rights law was it happened in february by the Minganie Regional County Municipality and the Ekuanitshit Innu Council in Quebec. The local authority and indigenous council assigned nine rights to the Magpie River, including the right to be safe from pollution and the right to sue, as well as the ability to assign legal guardians to ensure those rights are respected.

Ecuador: The first country to adopt a right of nature in its national constitution, Ecuador states that nature (known as pachamama) has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate. These rights have been respected several times in court, although it has been more difficult to ensure compliance with legal decisions.

Bangladesh: All Bangladesh’s rivers received explicit rights to be protected in 2019, after people complained that the banks of the Turag River were being over-built and the water too polluted. The high court agreed that this was a problem and gave all the country’s rivers legal personality, a decision upheld by the high court last year.

U.S: In May, a network of streams, lakes and marshes in Orange County, Florida sued a developer and the state to try to stop a housing development from destroying them. While many American municipalities have adopted laws on the rights of nature, this was the first time anyone tried to enforce them in court.

Find more coverage on the era of extinction here and follow the biodiversity reporters Phoebe Weston Y Patrick Greenfield on Twitter for the latest news and features

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