As a speaker of Ojibwemowin (the Ojibwe language) explains in the upcoming June issue of Minnesota Women’s Press, “the nuances of the Anishinaabe language denotes that we are fully dependent on every other living thing for our survival. We need plants and animals for food, clothing, shelter. We cannot exist without our brothers and sisters of creation. Our language gives ‘personhood’ or ‘beingness’ to other living ones that the English language designates as objects.”
This is why the Rights of Mississippi alliance members do not use “the” in front of the river’s name. As Caspian Wirth-Petrik put it at a May 4 virtual gathering of the group, people don’t use “the” in front of our personal names because it is objectifying. @rightsofmississippi is working to bring “rights of nature” to Mississippi, from the headwaters in Minnesota to Gulf of Mexico to stop commodifying and objectifying living entities.
Rights of nature is a legal movement that seeks to stop treating nature as human property. Given that nature regenerates itself and connects in an ecosystem, as all living beings do, the people standing up for the rights of nature are seeking to establish that pollution into bodies of water, for one, harms a living entity that has rights just as humans do.
Ecuador was the first country to establish protection of nature into its constitution in 2008 — citizens can go to court on behalf of nature. The Whanganui River in New Zealand has rights since 2017, thanks to a collaboration between the Indigenous Māori people and the government. Communities in California, Colorado, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, can enforce for ecosystems. According to an Ensia article in 2020, Toledo, Ohio; Grant Township in Pennsylvania; and Pittsburgh also are adopting bills of rights that establish the right to local self-government, the right to a healthy environment, the right to clean water, and protection for the local environment. “This challenges the belief that nature is property, and the idea that state and federal laws prevail over local governance.”
In 2018, Minnesota’s White Earth Band of Ojibwe passed a law in tribal court protecting the rights of manoomin (wild rice), which was the first law in the world recognizing the rights of a species. The city of Duluth has considered acknowledging rights of the St. Louis River Estuary and the wild rice that grows there.
“For example, people in Duluth who are concerned about mercury, asbestos, cadmium, lead and arsenic ending up in their drinking water as a result of the proposed copper-nickel mine upstream are funneled toward the state regulatory system, where their primary recourse is to comment on the project’s Environmental Impact Statement, fight permits in court and struggle to uphold pollution standards. But the regulatory system defines what, where and how much pollution is allowed, not if the pollution is allowed. By recognizing the rights of nature, the community can make protecting the ecosystem the top order of business.
Rights of Nature attempts to incorporate Indigenous worldviews into the Western legal framework. In the Anishinaabe cosmology, Mother Earth comes before people, and there’s a responsibility to care for rivers because they are her veins. It’s a worldview that includes reciprocity between humans and nature, rather than a hierarchy that places humans above nature — and some humans above other humans.”
Two members of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, a Pennsylvania-based nonprofit law firm, have been working with Minnesota advocates for the rights of nature. A workshop on the rights of nature will be hosted on May 18 by @rightsofmississippi. The two-hour conversation will explore the history and status of rights of nature, and what needs to happen to get to where it could lead.
Marita Bujold is a founder of Just Food and Water and has contributed to the authoring of the Headwaters Community Food and Water Bill (HF1332/SF1580),which was introduced this year in the Minnesota legislature by Rep. Kaohly Her and Sen. Erin Murphy. Among other things, it would: provide financial and technical assistance for urban and rural producers engaged in organic, regenerative food systems to expand to year-round operations; conduct seed and plant exchange; restore aquifers; and advance the revival of food systems defined by cultures of Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color.
Her point is that our industrial food economy is paid for with taxpayer funds, yet it contaminates ecosystems and produces greenhouse gases that endanger living beings. Water and soil are damaged by chemicals from industrial agriculture. In the case of Mississippi, that contamination is allowed to flow into Gulf of Mexico, creating dead zones. This bill would create a regenerative economy that requires healthy ecosystems as a matter of law, based in part on the proven leadership of Indigenous communities as stewards. It would enable jobs in urban and rural environments, from source to table.
Learn more: mn350action.org