As a child, I frequently visited the Maas River in the Netherlands with my father. I loved listening to the sounds of flowing water, the birds singing and the leaves crunching beneath my feet as we walked alongside the river. At that age I was not aware of the challenges that the river was facing. Back then, I could not have imagined that two decades later I would be advocating for this river’s rights.
Like many rivers around the world, the health and wellbeing of the Maas River, which originates in France and flows through Belgium to the Netherlands, is severely threatened by pollution and climate change. Photo by Jason Eppink.
The Maas (or Meuse, in French) originates in France and flows through Belgium to the Netherlands, where it ends in the North Sea. Like many rivers around the world, its health and wellbeing is severely threatened by pollution and climate change. The Maas is drowning in sewage and wastewater, plastic waste and industrial chemicals, and many other forms and sources of pollution. Not only is this threatening the river’s integral health and the complex web of living systems that exists in and around the river, but it also affects humans. A large number of people depend on the wellbeing of the Maas, as it supports human life by providing drinking water, food sources, recreation, and fertile soil. All of this is in jeopardy. For instance, when contamination levels of an agricultural chemical substance were too high in the river in November 2019, officials temporarily cut the river off as a source of drinking water. This is just one of many examples of how intrinsically connected we are with the river.
Rivers are essential to human and nonhuman life. Even without bringing intrinsic value into question, it is obvious that rivers require adequate legal protection with such dependency upon their health. However, the pollution levels in Maas and other rivers across the world confirm that environmental laws have not gone far enough. I believe that the problems with current environmental laws actually lie deeper in our treatment of nature as a right-less object with no legal voice.
When we look at the permits for discharging substances in the Maas, we find that the interests of the environment are often overruled by other ”societal” interests. Even though the ecological quality of water is taken into account when assessing a permit, the integrity of the river itself can be fairly easily overruled. Companies requesting these permits have savvy lawyers, but nature has no legal voice in these processes. Many environmental laws try to slow down the degradation of nature, but work within the same (legal) system that has resulted in the current ecological crisis. To change the direction humanity is taking this planet, today’s governance and legal systems must change the way we approach and treat nature.
This is where the rights of nature approach provides a possible solution. Changing the legal status of nature — from a lawless object to a subject with rights — could proactively prevent harm and protect the river, rather than merely slowing down its degradation and pollution. The rights of nature concept is based on the idea that natural entities like a river have basic, fundamental rights, just as humans do. A river, for example, has the rights to flow, regeneration, and to be free from pollution.
In New Zealand, for example, the legal personhood of the Whanganui River was recognized in 2017. The guardians appointed to act on behalf of the Whanganui River come from both the government and the Whanganui Iwi (local Māori tribe). Through this legal guardianship, the river is able to have a voice in legal systems.
In the past years, I have observed an incredible increase in local governments and countries recognizing the rights of nature as a protective tool amid insufficient environmental laws.
Colombia is an intriguing setting where the rights of nature has taken off in a surprising way. For years, the Atrato River in northwestern Colombia had been polluted by illegal mining in the area. The Center of Studies for Social Justice, on behalf of local communities and farmers, argued that the pollution violated the constitutional rights to life, equality, and a healthy environment of nearby Indigenous communities. After first being dismissed by the local administrative court, the Constitutional Court of Colombia ruled that not only the rights of local communities but also the rights of the river itself were violated. Inspired by worldwide examples of river rights, in November 2016 the court declared that the river “is subject to rights that imply its protection, conservation, maintenance and in this case, restoration.”
In Europe, the idea of the rights of nature is spreading as well. There is a Swiss/French initiative to have the rights of the Rhône River legally recognized. The city of Paris is looking into the possibility of recognizing the rights for the Seine. There is also a proposal to recognize the rights of the River Dart in the United Kingdom. In Spain, an initiative to change the legal status of Mar Menor, Europe’s largest saltwater lagoon, is emerging as an approach to address pollution.
These developments serve as inspiration for the start of a project group initiated by myself and the Maas CleanUp, a collective of businesses, civilians, activists, volunteers, and policymakers dedicated to cleaning up the Maas River. In just one clean-up day in 2020, we collected more than 6,000 kilograms of waste in and around the river. In order to address pollution and other challenges in protecting the river, we recognized that changes to our legal system are needed. To this end, a project group consisting of lawyers, campaigners, and conservationists are researching the possibility of legal rights for the Maas. Our aim is to move this idea onto the political agenda of the Netherlands and inspire the rest of Europe in exploring this legal concept. The Dutch nonprofit Instituut voor Natuureducatie (Institute for Nature Education) has developed a traineeship for students to research the possibility of rights of the Maas River. The students will learn the challenges the river faces and research whether giving the river rights could offer an effective solution.
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