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Rights for the rivers: Groups fight for recognition of natural entities' legal rights

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

A growing worldwide legal movement to grant natural entities like forests and rivers the same legal rights as humans is catching on in the U.S. Indigenous-led campaigns to recognize the legal rights of wild rice and salmon are setting the stage for a nascent movement to protect the Mississippi River. Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco of the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk reports.

JUANPABLO RAMIREZ-FRANCO, BYLINE: The Mississippi River flows through 10 states and spans over 2,300 miles, from its headwaters in northern Minnesota down to New Orleans, where it empties into the Gulf of Mexico.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting) Water is life. Mni wiconi (ph), (inaudible). Water is life.

RAMIREZ-FRANCO: On this day, a group of environmentalists chant as they cross the river, marching on a bridge that connects the quad cities, four towns in Illinois and Iowa that border the Mississippi. They say the river is alive.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #1: Say what?

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #2: Ain't no power like the power of the people.

GLENDA GUSTER: The river has rights just like human rights. Our nature have rights, and it's up to us to preserve these rights.

RAMIREZ-FRANCO: That's Glenda Guster from Davenport, Iowa. She and about 80 others joined the Walk for River Rights held by the Great Plains Action Society. Sikowis Nobiss is the founder of the Indigenous rights organization. She says the group's goal is to build a coalition of people who will work to create a legal framework that protects the river.

SIKOWIS NOBISS: The earth is really suffering, and rights of nature would basically give personhood to the river. And it would allow us to have more power to keep it safe.

RAMIREZ-FRANCO: The idea is that natural entities, like rivers, trees or wildlife, have the same rights as humans. Companies could be taken to court for damaging the river or its ecosystem. That's exactly what happened in Tamaqua, a small town in Pennsylvania about 90 miles northwest of Philadelphia. Thomas Linzey is a senior attorney at the Center for Democratic and Environmental Rights and drafted the document to get rights for the small borough.

THOMAS LINZEY: It may be a radical concept, or it was 20 years ago, but we're rapidly coming to a place where, without this kind of new system of environmental law - that we're all kind of done.

RAMIREZ-FRANCO: Ultimately, locals were able to stop sewage sludge from being dumped in Tamaqua using the new ordinance. Linzey was also a consultant for the Ecuadorian government in 2008 when it drafted its new constitution - the first in the world to ratify the rights of nature.

LINZEY: The work has spread to other countries and, in the U.S., to about over three dozen municipalities at this point.

RAMIREZ-FRANCO: Just a few months ago in April, the city of Seattle settled a case with the Sauk-Suiattle Indian Tribe over the claim that salmon had the right to spawn, among other rights. But there are limitations according to University of Virginia law professor Michael Livermore, who has studied the rights of nature movement.

MICHAEL LIVERMORE: Without a notion of how to actually define the interests that are affected and how to compare them against each other, the idea of nature's rights is just extraordinarily indeterminate.

RAMIREZ-FRANCO: And some states like Idaho, Florida and Ohio have taken steps to ban the possibility that nature or ecosystems can have legal standing. That type of opposition doesn't deter. Lance Foster. He's a member of the Iowa tribe of Kansas and Nebraska and says the success of rights of nature around the world got his tribe and others thinking, why not us?

LANCE FOSTER: And we wondered, why hasn't the big rivers - the Missouri River and the Mississippi River - have those rights?

RAMIREZ-FRANCO: So the tribe created a resolution calling for the rights of the Missouri River to be recognized. They hope to use it to challenge industrial-scale agriculture and deep-mining operations. Foster says, if corporations get legal rights in the U.S., why shouldn't rivers?

For NPR News, I'm Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco in the quad cities. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco
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