Milner on Biodiversity – Blog #2: “The Legal Rights of Rivers” 

Edward Milner 

May 12, 2022 

The Magpie River in northern Quebec has been granted full legal rights of a person. You might think this was an amusing peculiarity in a remote corner of the vast Canadian north, having little relevance to the rest of the world. I suggest you would be wrong. In fact, the Magpie joins the Klamath in northern California Washington State, USA and the Whanganui in North Island, New Zealand as well as Los Cedros Biological Reserve in Ecuador, all of which have been granted similar rights in recent times. The decision by the Innu Council of Ekuantshit, the local indigenous people of the Magpie Valley ensures that the river has a right to flow freely, to be free of pollution and thus maintain its natural biodiversity. It can now sue anyone or any entity that infringes these rights. In the modern world rights like this, self-evident to most Indigenous peoples, have to be written down and agreed by local administrations.  

For the last two or three hundred years Indigenous people, traditional keepers of the natural heritage, have been ignored and shut out of decision-making while their lands, forests and waters were exploited by outsiders. It is to prevent this damage that the Indigenous inhabitants of the Magpie River basin have taken this step; at the very least their views will have to be heard. As a potential protection against some of the worst excesses of environmental damage by corporate interests or other government agencies, it is most promising, offering a more considered approach to biodiversity conservation and indeed the health of the planet.  

All over the world rivers have suffered from the excesses of modern development, their waters polluted, extracted, dammed and misused for several centuries. The granting of legal status may contribute to restoring some balance by offering more substantial opposition to some of the most damaging activities. Hydro-power schemes have restricted the flow of thousands of rivers and there are plans for thousands more. These projects rarely take into account the collateral damage to local people and their livelihoods as fish populations inevitably suffer with migration prevented and river conditions changed, and from the likely flooding scenarios. Salmon especially have been badly affected by dams in the Klamath basin; being a keystone species this has meant that the whole river ecosystem was affected. Impetus for the Klamath river declaration was the restoration of the native salmon and trout populations, in particular their unhindered migration to spawning grounds.  

Could a river’s right to flow have an influence in other parts of the world where hundreds of new hydro-power schemes are planned? Certainly, local communities need every help they can get when resisting grandiose political projects with powerful commercial backing. Water extraction for irrigation schemes too could be tempered by the right to flow; in dry areas some counterbalance to overuse of water by agricultural interests could result. The right to be free of pollution would have obvious benefits in much of the world. In both Britain and the USA recent reports show that virtually every river basin is significantly polluted, with freshwater fish among the most threatened groups of animals.  

Whether this approach will work under different legal frameworks is uncertain, but as details of the global biodiversity crisis become better known it is clear that something has to change. Rivers especially are under threat. The weak ‘environmental impact’ approach of many governments has been shown not to work – perhaps the influence of local communities can have more success in counteracting what are essentially commercial pressures.  

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