Earth Law Center’s First Initiative in Africa

Reader Contribution by Darlene May Lee and Earth Law Center
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Earth Law Center’s First Initiative in Africa

I’m so excited to tell you that Earth Law Center and the River Ethiope Trust Foundation (“RETFON”) just launched an initiative to establish legal rights for the River Ethiope in Nigeria. The River Ethiope would be the first waterway in Africa to gain legal rights recognition. The Ethiope is also Earth Law Center’s first initiative in Africa!

So what does rights recognition mean for the Ethiope River?

The Ethiope doesn’t get human rights, by the way. It’s not going to vote or pay taxes. With rights, the Ethiope gains legal protection from pollution, diversion, and dams. It also means that local communities have the right to sue would-be destroyers of the river in court because they’d be suing on behalf of the river.

More about the Ethiope River

You can find the River Ethiope in the Delta State of Nigeria. It begins in the community of Umuaja, where it emerges from the earth at the base of a giant silk cottonwood tree – a place of worship for adherents to the traditional Olokun and Igbe religions. The river then runs for approximately 70 kilometers (43 miles) and empties into the Atlantic. It is believed to be the deepest inland waterway in Africa.

Local communities rely upon the River Ethiope for drinking, bathing, fishing, medicine, agriculture, and many other purposes. It also supports rich biodiversity. Threats to the river include industrial contamination, oil spills, solid waste disposal, and impacts from a growing population and booming tourism industry – particularly at the river’s mysterious source, which is being degraded by overuse.

Other rivers have already gained rights recognition

The River Ethiope seeks to join a growing list of rivers whose rights have already been recognized. In 2017, a treaty between the New Zealand government and M?ori tribe of Whanganui recognized the Whanganui River as a “legal person” possessing rights. Just five days later, the Uttarakhand High Court in India recognized the Ganges (or “Ganga”) and Yamuna Rivers and their surrounding ecosystems as rights-bearing entities, although the Supreme Court of India later stayed this decision. Also in 2017, Colombia’s Constitutional Court ruled that the Atrato River possesses inherent rights to “protection, conservation, maintenance, and restoration.” 

But we can’t do this alone. For us to truly halt and reverse the destruction of our natural environment, we all need to join in. To paraphrase Buckminster Fuller, on Spaceship Earth, there are no passengers, only crew.

Want to do something yourself?

Sign up for our Universal Declaration of River Rights here

Read more about the River Ethiope initiative here

Sign up for ELC’s monthly newsletter here

Volunteer for this initiative here

Donate to the cause here

Darlene May Lee is Executive Director of Earth Law Center, which works to transform the law to recognize and protect nature’s inherent rights to exist, thrive and evolve. She works to build a force of advocates for nature’s rights at the local, state, national, and international levels. Connect with Earth Law Center on TwitterFacebookand LinkedIn. Read all of Darlene’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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