In 2009, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed April 22nd as International Mother Earth Day. Member States acknowledged that the Earth and its ecosystems are our common home, and expressed their conviction that it is necessary to promote Harmony with Nature in order to achieve a just balance among the economic, social and environmental needs of present and future generations. The same year, the General Assembly adopted its first resolution on Harmony with Nature. http://www.harmonywithnatureun.org/
This year, International Earth Day focuses on the concept of the laws of nature and a Canadian MP, Alexandre Boulerice traveled to New York before the Trusteeship Council of the UN General Assembly to plead the legal entity status for the St-Lawrence River and its watershed, including the Great Lakes. Mr. Boulerice was accompanied by Yenny Vega Cárdenas, president of the International Observatory for the Rights of Nature.
The climate emergency increasingly favors the idea of granting legal rights to nature. Already, in February 2021, this status was granted for the first time to a Canadian river, the Magpie River, “considered a world-renowned destination for whitewater rafting”.
Legal entity status for a river gives it nine legal rights:
1) the right to flow;
2) the right to respect for its cycles;
3) the right to have its natural evolution protected and preserved;
4) the right to maintain its natural biodiversity;
5) the right to fulfill its essential functions within its ecosystem;
6) the right to maintain its integrity;
7) the right to be safe from pollution;
8) the right to regenerate and be restored;
9) the right to sue.
This last right is crucial to allow the protection of the river against possible industrial projects, such as hydroelectric development, an economic project or a road project like the 3rd link requested in the Quebec city area. Concretely, this means that the river would be able to weight in during the environmental studies that take place before the approval of any new project that must be submitted to said studies.
If the status of legal entity is granted to the St-Lawrence river, it could assert its rights through a committee that would protect its interests and its health, in collaboration with the First Nations.
The recognition of the Magpie River and the eventual recognition of the St-Lawrence River are part of an international movement aimed at recognizing rivers and ecosystems as entities with an intrinsic existence and the right to exist. It is the recognition that these ecosystems are not simply resources available to human beings.
In this so-called “ecocentric” conception of the world, man is only one element among others, of a vast natural system.
Elsewhere in the world, the Wanghanui River in New Zealand and the Atrato River in Colombia were thus granted rights by their countries constitutional courts in 2017.
Moreover, the rights of Nature have been recognized in the constitutions of Ecuador and Bolivia. And more than 20 municipalities in the United States have passed local ordinances that recognize ecosystem rights.
All of this is encouraging. Our world is increasingly facing climate disruption, loss of biodiversity, destruction of nature, but I am hopeful that actions such as giving legal status to large rivers and their watersheds can reverse the trend and bring us more in harmony with our environment.
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