March 22, 2022 —
We talk about human rights and animal rights – what about the rights of nature itself? The right not to be polluted, even the right to personality. Many countries and cities have guaranteed rights to their waterways and lands.
NCPR caught up with three of the organizers of tonight’s Northern Rights of Nature Symposium: Blake Lavia and Tzintzun Aguilar-Izzo, who run an art and storytelling project called Talking Wings and Amanda Barreto who is a student at St. Lawrence University.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
MONICA SANDRECZKI: What are the rights of nature? I think that’s probably a phrase a lot of people haven’t heard before.
TZINTZUN AGUILAR-IZZO: It kind of boils down to two different opposing paradigms, worldviews. In one of them, nature is a mere commodity, something that can be exploited, that has no rights, that has no value in court, but a mere object to be consumed. In the other, nature is an actual living being or entity that we all interact with on some level. We are also living beings in this world; we are all organisms. In this other view, nature itself may have personality rights in court. This vision, of course, goes back millennia, to different nations, cultures around the world, especially on this continent. But before, the nations of this region called Turtle Island, also known by some communities as North America, have considered nature as an essential part of their community, and the “rights of nature” derive in sort of from that point of view.
Amanda Barreto: “Rights of nature” also means recognizing that rivers and waterways have an inherent value distinct from their value or use to humans. It is a tool that allows communities and guardians to ensure that rivers or streams have the right to flow freely and have clean waters apart from their use for humans, such as drinking water ; than the rivers [themselves]they have the right to go their own way, to be clean and to evolve.
SANDRECZKI: Part of the purpose of this symposium is to explore the process of creating a bill of rights for the St. Lawrence River watershed. What might that look like?
AGULIAR-IZZO: In this area? We do not know yet. That’s why we’re having the rights of nature symposium because all this change comes from conversation; all change comes from bringing communities together to weave together a tapestry of lasting transformative change.
However, if we take a bill of rights that has been drafted across the world, there are certain elements that must be included. There were always different wordings that recognized nature or natural objects such as rivers, trees, species like salmon, as having inherent rights, other status rights, or legal personality before the courts.
Then there is the article that usually states what those rights will look like: whether the river has the right to flow freely, to regenerate, that all of its ecosystems are respected.
The next step would be who could go to court and protect these rivers, which members of the community, whether it’s a specific council whose sole purpose is to enforce these cases, or anyone being able to assert a right in the case of nature, it is the question: who can defend nature? And then how is it applied?
SANDRECZKI: Yes, I wanted to raise this application issue. Rivers do not obey borders, I am thinking especially of the St. Lawrence River, which also has international interests. It’s a lot at stake.
AGUILAR-IZZO: I couldn’t agree with you more. There’s a lot of play. It’s an extremely complex dynamic. It may look different if it’s in tribal court, if it’s in the state, the county, it all depends on those specific government bodies.
But more than that, we’re trying to change the narrative. It’s not just about the laws on the books, it’s also about trying to have the normative effect of a slowly changing culture. It’s probably the most powerful thing more than the laws themselves. It changes the discourse to consider the rights of nature at a cultural and global level.
BLAKE LAVIA: Talking to nature rights lawyers, the perfect way to enforce nature rights, especially here where we have so many rivers through so many cities, is to create coalitions, so to have a lot of cities of across the river and even counties say they do want to uphold the rights of nature. Also, if we all coordinate and unite with the community of Akwesasne and they themselves pass legislation from them, we will truly create a strong bond, a chain, which is more likely than if only the city of Potsdam or Canton decided to skip it.
Usually, when it comes to any type of movement or desire to protect nature, what matters is numbers: the communities who want their nature to be safe, to be protected for their own good -to be. That’s when we all make a difference. That is the main reason for this symposium: to speak and unite across these vast expanses of land and water and protect our environment.