Written by: Jun.-Prof.Dr. Riccarda Flemmer
Project: "The Transformative Potential of Rights of Nature?"/ “El potencial transformador de los derechos de la naturaleza?
With colaboration from:
Mariana Contreras Leal- Research Assistant
Lina Weber-Research Assitant
The Knowledge Dialogues between Latin America and Europe in the summer term 2023 aim to bring together activists, indigenous peoples, practitioners and scientists in a critical dialogue between the advocates and adversaries of Rights of Nature (RoN). The events will shed light on different topic areas, such as constitutional reforms, forest protection, global political transformation, and moral implications reflecting on the potentials and pitfalls of RoN for sustainable transformations. The series of dialogues is organized by Juniorprofessor Dr. Riccarda Flemmer and seeks to create a space for dialogue, mutual learning, and conjoint knowledge-production between the Global North and South.
Keynote: Series opening by Alberto Acosta
On 4th May 2023 the series “Knowledge Dialogues between Latin America and Europe: was inaugurated at the University of Tübingen. After a warm welcome by Riccarda, Dr. Alberto Acosta, Ecuadorian economist, politician, author, and activist opened the event with a talk about the origins of the RoN. Alberto is one of the fathers of the Latin American movement for RoN and his Presidency of the Ecuadorian Constitutional Assembly in the first constitution worldwide recognizing the rights of Pachamama, Mother Earth. In his talk, he explained that RoN are rooted in indigenous cosmovision but also speak directly to Western philosophical ideas of sustainability by Hans Carl von Carlowitz and Alexander Humboldt or concepts of legal personhood by Christopher Stone from the 1970s. He emphasized the biocentric ethics underlying RoN: Nature gives rights to humans, and not the other way around. This way of thinking would bear the potential for fundamental change in the logics of rights and politics, and may bring a new era of civilization. However, knowing first hand how difficult it can be to accept new rights, he argued that historically it has always been a struggle to give rights to previously unrecognized groups or entities.
Dialogue on the Rights of Water-Ríos-Lagunas-Gewässer
Riccarda opened the dialogue with a brief overview of the current state of the rights of waters around the globe. She used the open-access database of the EcoJurisprudence Monitor (EJ Monitor), a mapping produced by a group of researchers - Craig Kauffman, Shrishtee Bajpai, Kelsey Leonard, Elizabeth Macpherson, Pamela Martin, Alessandro Pelizzon, Alex Putzer, and Linda Sheehan - to show the current state of RoN initiatives. The EJ Monitor includes around 500 EJ initiatives with approx. 400 RoN cases and about 100 related to water. As milestone cases she highlighted the recognition of the Vilcabamba River in Ecuador in 2011, the Whanganui River in Aotearoa- New Zealand in 2017, and the Río Atrato in Colombia in the same year. She emphasized that also in Europe there is a push for recognizing the rights of watersheds, recently in 2022 the salt water lagoon Mar Menor in Murcía, Spain became the first ecosystem recognized as a legal person in Europe.
People of the River, the Río Atrato case and Afro-colombian Communities
Afro-Colombian activist and sociologist Marylin Machado Mosquera from the Colombian Pacific region Chocó was the first guest to speak about water rights in practice and shared her first hand experiences of fighting for the rights of the Atrato River in Colombia. She gave insights on the relationship local communities have with the river. Following the community's understanding, humans and nature are supposed to be in a relationship of balance. This implies a relational ontology that understands rivers to be relevant not for their instrumental use but because of an emotional connection to them. They are viewed as mother or father because they give life to people. She highlighted the importance of “sentipensar”, thinking-feeling, and Ubuntu to understand how Afro-descendant communities and the river coexist. Marylin emphasized that rights are complementary and that by recognizing the rights of the river, the state did not only recognize a natural entity as a subject of rights, but it also acknowledged the need to secure the health of people and animals of the Chocó region.
Marlyin highlighted that in practice there are a number of issues that are not resolved. She mentioned how the humanitarian crisis report in 2019 showed that the Colombian government needs to follow-up on its promises for action. Furthermore, there is criticism from the local community concerning the state limiting the number of guardians assigned to protect Rio Atrato since all of them would have a close relationship with the river. This reduction of guardians would follow a Western approach. Further, the land rights, especially of the Afro-Colombian communities in the area are not even mentioned by the ruling of the Rio Atrato case.
Healthy rivers, defining and measuring “good ecological status” of rivers in Germany
Crossing the boundaries of disciplines, environmental systems analyst Dr. Jonas Schaper, who specializes in freshwater ecology, introduced with his presentation the way natural sciences understand the “good ecological status” of rivers in Germany. He explained that for a river to be “healthy” or not, a list of symptoms must be defined that are contrasted with a state of reference. This state of reference would define a “healthy” river. As he emphasized, this reference state is not a “natural” good condition because rivers have been highly exposed to human intervention for centuries. Historically, rivers have been straightened and drained, dams have been constructed for flood protection, agriculture, and disease control. These human interventions were clearly motivated by an anthropocentric ethos and modified natural ecosystems for human advantage.For a river to be doing “well”, Jonas emphasized that it would flow all year around, shows a high biodiversity, and has a balanced concentration of minerals and nutrients. However, although he could measure, if a river is “doing well” or not, Jonas also highlighted the ethical dimension of defining what is considered a good status. This ties into ideas included in the concept of One Health that acknowledges the mutual interdependence of human, animal and planetary health together.
Jonas explained that a future challenge for natural and social sciences alike will be how reference states are changing under varied biological and climatic conditions and the effects of passive and active river restoration on ecosystem integrity and services. Who decides what is taken as a reference, what reference is a “good” status and who is allowed to speak for a river remain inherently political questions about river rights.
In an open round with the audience, questions were raised on how to translate RoN into areas where the approach is not yet present, about the influence of the new president in Colombia and the role of not-human or animal entities. Alberto highlighted that the engagement of different groups, civil society, academia and politics is essential to lead to a change towards applying RoN. Further, Marylin expressed the high hopes society puts in the new Colombian president but also stressed that it is a whole system operating together and warned not to think one person can change everything. Lastly, Jonas explained that also in natural sciences subscribing oneself to one model or another, deciding to give natural entities an intrinsic value or not is always connected to the way one relates oneself to the system: Thus, relational values become entangled between instrumental values. Lastly, he emphasized that also scientifically it is difficult to find a clear line between what are living and nonliving entities and that the boundaries are always gradual and not discrete.
Synergies of Knowledges: Food for thought
The first knowledge dialogue allowed the audience to get an overview on the current status of RoN in the world and specifically about rights of water bodies. It brought together a variety of experiences from different corners of the world and presented how water and its rights are perceived and protected. Additionally, a bridge from natural to social science was established, seeing the connection and the need for collaboration beyond university to work on the well-being of water bodies and communities worldwide. As Alberto highlighted we need to “find a combination of community experience-based knowledge, emotional ties and ways to measure damages, define indicators, and inform policies.”
Questions on the potentials and limitations of RoN to keep in mind and heart:
More information about the series: "Knowledge Dialogues between Latin America and Europe about Rights of Nature" click here.
Video produced by: OteroTillmannFilme