The sacred prayers and wisdom of Indigenous peoples who have always known that how we decide to manage water will determine whether our future is peaceful or perilous, is finally being heard and acted upon as groups, under the guidance of Indigenous elders, seek to legally protect water across the planet.
Water has been abused for far too long, but now people are starting to treat water like the Indigenous custodians have for aeons–as a living being. Around the world, many people are standing up for the rights of bodies of water.
For 140 years, the Māori Whanganui iwi (tribe) negotiated for the Whanganui River to be recognised as their ancestor. Last year, in a world first, the New Zealand Parliament finally agreed that the Whanganui is a ‘living entity.’ And just a week later, the Yamuna River and the Ganges were recognised by a high court in India as having legal rights, meaning the rivers have the same legal rights as any other human would have. In Colombia, in another revolutionary ruling, the Constitutional Court of Colombia decided that the Atrato River is a living being, a legal entity with personhood rights. The ruling says that the Atrato River, which had been heavily polluted by gold mining and left with mercury contamination, is now to be restored to health.
We’ve seen battles for basic human rights, for the abolition of slavery, the fight for women’s rights, for the rights of gay or Indigenous people. And now, we’re seeing the battle for the rights of nature. Today, the Yamuna, Ganges, Whanganui, Vilcabamba and Atrato rivers have all been granted legal rights.
What is vital about the Atrato River ruling is that the rights awarded to the river are given because of what it provides for human life. It has ‘bio-cultural’ rights including its protection, conservation, maintenance and restoration. And these rights are enforceable. The Colombian state must ensure these rights are imposed and the ruling says local Indigenous people must manage the river and its interests. This is a radical ruling, one which turns the commoditising of nature and the colonial legacy on its head.
The Rights of Nature
For too long now the waterways have been abused by humans, for industry, profit and waste. But now, lawyers are taking environmental activism into the law courts. Polly Higgins is a barrister and international environmental lawyer.
As a lawyer, my job is to represent the Earth as my client.
She believes we can use the law to change the rules of the game and she is currently working to have a law enacted at an international level that would recognise ecocide as being a crime.
It’s about using law, and bringing law back to reinstate the sacred trust of civilisation, because when we do that we start to take responsibility individually and collectively.
The Earth Law Centre advances the rights of nature to exist, thrive and evolve. Directing Attorney, Grant Wilson, is working to create replicable models of laws that communities across the world could pass to establish legal rights for nature.
The rights of nature is an emerging legal paradigm that’s happening all over the world right now. At the national level, we see two countries, Ecuador and Bolivia that recognise rights of nature. Ecuador was the first in 2008. They, in a new constitution, have a whole section on legal rights for nature. They’ve had over a dozen court cases enforcing these rights. Bolivia passed two national laws, in 2010 and 2012, also recognising rights for nature, or Pachamama, Mother Earth. So here we see two countries recognising it nationally. So a precedent is already emerging.
Fighting for the Rights of Rivers
The Earth Law Centre is currently working with a local coalition in Mexico, Cuatro al Cubo, who are fighting for the rights of three rivers.
One is the Magdalena River, or the Rio Magdalena. It’s in Mexico City. It’s quite amazing as it’s the last of some 45 rivers that once existed in Mexico City. Mexico City used to be a island Aztec capital. There’s an island in a huge lake. When the Spaniards showed up, they basically built over the lake. And over the years now, it’s become a megapolis covered in concrete, and there’s some 45 rivers beneath the city. They call them invisible rivers. There’s a campaign to restore them as there’s only one, one single free-flowing river left, and that’s the Magdalena.
The community-backed initiative recently had a legal breakthrough when the legislative assembly of Mexico City passed a new law; a water sustainability law that recognises the rights of waterways, including the right to flow, to be free from pollution, and other rights. This is a wonderful example of how community and Indigenous advocates are winning the battle to save the environment and legally entrench the preservation and protection of water for generations to come.
We’ve got to change to meet the river’s picture, rather than what we’ve done for 150 years, which is to ask the river to change to meet our picture. – Gerrard Albert, Maori iwi spokesperson.
Standing in Solidarity with Water Protectors
In a time where we have a battle for the corporatisation, abuse of and privatisation of water; and the current Chairman and former CEO of Nestlé, the largest producer of food products in the world, denies that water is a fundamental right, it is a moral imperative to protect water and access to clean water.
We learnt, through the powerful actions at Standing Rock, how to pray for water, to come together and honour water and safeguard it. Cheryl Angel is a Water Protector and Native Rights Activist. She is Sicangu/Oohenumpa and STANDS with Standing Rock full time. She moves from a space of deep love, prayer and non-violent action.
We are unarmed water protectors. We ask all activists to become Spiritual and all Spiritual people to become Active. In this unity, we will stand in powerful prayer to protect the water.
Prayers are an Indigenous way of protecting something, a powerful sacred practice. It is time for us to listen to, learn from, and respect the old ways and the timeless wisdom that our Indigenous brothers and sisters carry. We are entering a new era where Indigenous-led actions, backed by the modern systems of the world, are creating change and leading the way.
Chief Phil Lane Jr of the Ihanktonwan Dakota and Chickasaw Nations, says that water is a key component in sacred ceremonies of all the tribes across Mother Earth, because water is foundational to all life.
Back in 1980 when I sun danced for the first time, we sun danced with an elder named Pete and he liked to dance day and night for two days and two nights. The last day before we started the piercing, we were really, really thirsty. Our lips were cracked, our tongues felt fat. I mean, and it wasn’t food at that point that you wanted, you wanted water. I remember him smiling to us saying, ‘Well,’ he said, ‘Nephews, now you can understand that water is medicine, water is sacred.’ We know without water we will very quickly leave this physical world. I mean, water is life. Water is life. I think that water also has so many spiritual teachings to share with us.
He goes on to explain the sacred teachings about water that he was given by his grandfather Frank, White Buffalo Man:
He said, ‘Grandson, what do you see, lessons in that stream?’ He said, ‘What is that water saying to you?’ … ‘Pick up the water and feel it. Feel how gently and how lovely it touches your hands.’ He says, ‘That water goes through deserts, through mountains, through plains, but it never turns its back on anybody or anything. It’s always unselfish.’ He said, ‘That water has great, great humility. It always sinks to the very lowest spot, but that water has so much patience, and so much strength, and so much power, that even the mountain stands before it slowly but surely, it’ll wash that mountain away into the sea.’ He said, ‘These are the spiritual qualities we have to have.’
It has been shown that water is responsive to the power of intention. On March 22, join us for World Water Day and come together to Bless The Water around the world. Gather at your local water source, or home, and place your good intentions and prayers into the water. Let’s stand in solidarity with the world’s water protectors with this blessing, and take the first step towards cleaning and restoring the world’s water. Register now for Bless The Water and watch the free online premiere on March 22 of the new UPLIFT film, The Voice of Water, featuring indigenous leaders, water experts and representatives from the international legal battle for the rights of water.