Rights of Rivers
This page describes the concept of Rights of Rivers and efforts to protect and value the Sussex Ouse with a new Rights of River framework. Lewes District Council was the first council in the UK to pass a motion seeking to declare a Rights of River Charter for the Ouse.
The concept was introduced at the River Festival in September 2022 where local people took part in a workshop, led by Love our Ouse, to propose a draft charter of rights for the river. Love Our Ouse is the lead organisation to date delivering community participatory aspects for the Rights of River work and is part of a growing network both locally and nationally.
What is Rights of Nature?
Rights of Nature is a way of rethinking our relationship with nature. All too often nature is defined in relation to humans and their activities. Rights of nature argues that nature should be recognised as existing on its own terms and have the same kind of legal rights that Human Rights give people. Rights of Nature also recognises the interdependencies that exists between all living things.
Some human rights have been extended to corporations globally – a company which is a wholly fictional entity can be recognised as a legal entity distinct from its individual decision makers. If we can define a corporation as having these rights, then it does not seem a great leap to suggest that nature and more specifically a river has similar rights.
The Universal Declaration on Rights of Rivers defines the basic rights for a river as;
- THE RIGHT TO FLOW
- THE RIGHT TO PERFORM ESSENTIAL FUNCTIONS WITHIN ITS ECOSYSTEM,
- THE RIGHT TO BE FREE FROM POLLUTION,
- THE RIGHT TO FEED AND BE FED BY SUSTAINABLE AQUIFERS,
- THE RIGHT TO NATIVE BIODIVERSITY, AND
- THE RIGHT TO REGENERATION AND RESTORATION
A Rights of Rivers declaration provides a framework to address the numerous threats faced by our river and broadens the narrow (but understandable) focus of the water pollution debate which dominates discussion on our waterways. We believe that to safeguard the future of our river and in fact all of nature we need the paradigm shift that Rights of Rivers brings.
Lewes District Council Motion
It was in this context that a motion to Lewes District Council was proposed and passed in February 2023.
The important part of the resolution was that;
This Council would like to explore Rights of Rivers in a local context and in particular the River Ouse and work with local communities, relevant stakeholders and local authorities along the River Ouse towards producing a ‘Declaration on the Rights of the River Ouse’ for adoption by the Council within 2 years.
Rights of Rivers across the UK
The reaction following the Lewes District Council Rights of River motion has been incredible with a huge amount of interest and stories in national newspapers, radio interviews, talks and podcasts.
We’ve been contacted by numerous river-focused groups, Wildlife Trusts and other local authorities working towards implementing Rights for their rivers.
We have received lots of offers of help developing and defining what the eventual River Charter for the Ouse will look like. Excitingly we are working with a lawyer who was involved in drafting the Rights of Nature aspects in the Ecuadorian Constitution.
We’ve helped several Master students who have chosen to focus on Rights of Nature as their thesis and we are partnering with Roehampton University and others in a bid to develop a national Rights of Nature network.
There is a growing recognition that Rights of Rivers offers an important shift in the way we relate to nature and rivers.
We are working in partnership with a number of people on different strands of Rights of Rivers so that by the end of 2024 a viable Charter for Rights of Rivers is able to be recognised and endorsed by Lewes District Council.
Our Rights of Rivers Steering Group is made up of representatives from Love Our Ouse, Railway Land Trust, Environmental Law Foundation, Lewes District Council, Ouse and Adur Rivers Trust, Sussex Wildlife Trust and others as the work programme demands.
The steering group meets every 2 months and ensure that progress is kept on track.
The legal aspects of Rights of Rivers are an important aspect of the eventual applicability of the Charter. Emma Montlake (Love our Ouse Director) is leading this area in consultation with Environmental Law Foundation, Monica Fiera-Tinta and others
When discussing what the ‘Voice of the River’ might look like and who is best placed to ‘speak for the river’, we are able to engage with young people for example, who begin to appreciate the river as its own entity and not as something in relation to humans.
We’ve found through community engagement and through our River Mapping at local events that Rights of Rivers shows the interconnectedness of the many issues being faced by our river in an easy to engage way.
We’re speaking with local communities, young people, landowners, statutory organisations and many others who all have an interest in the health of the river.
We’re delivering Rights of River live workshops sessions and surveying local people’s ideas for the Charter. It’s really vital that people who live and connect with the Ouse to be involved.
All our public sessions are made into reports you can read.
Rights of Rivers Summit
We will be holding a Rights of Rivers Summit in Lewes on November 24th 2023 inviting practitioners locally and from across the UK to share experiences and work together on developing next steps.
The Summit will report on national implementations of RoR to date and hold workshops on emerging key themes. We are intending for the Summit to help progress the River Ouse Charter work significantly.
Rights for the River Ouse Press links
The Guardian – The River Ouse maybe the first River to Gain Legal Rights
Al Jazeera podcast – An English Town’s Take on Rights of Nature
Local Government – Granting Rivers Rights
Weald to Waves – Ouse Opens Floodgates for Legal Rivers Rights
Sussex Wildlife Trust – Rights of River Charter
Sussex Express – Sussex River to be the first in England to have its own rights
Here are more insights into the Rights of River and Nature movement that you may find useful
What is Rights of Rivers (Nature)?
There is a growing international movement that recognises nature as having rights, inherent to its own ecology, distinct and divisible from humans. The global context is of a growing area of earth jurisprudence; that is the law recognising that nature has rights, rivers, and forests for instance.
Who else has rights?
Recognising existing rights of nature is a natural evolution of the legal rights movement. Many peoples have fought to have their rights recognised over the centuries and now we have an International Declaration of Human Rights and the UK is a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights.
Companies – a wholly fictitious entity have rights. A company exists as a separate legal entity, distinct from its decision makers, can be sued and can sue in a court of law.
What are key global dates for Rights of Nature?
In September 2008 Ecuador voted to accept a new constitution which included Rights of Nature. These rights are now embedded in the constitution and were enforced against the Ecuadorian government over mining concessions issued in a protected forest, Los Cedros in 2021. The court ruled they must be revoked. The Constitutional Court said the government’s failure to conduct studies looking at the fragility of Los Cedros coupled with the uncertainty of the effects from the permitted mining activity “violates the rights of nature to exist and regenerate”.
In 2017 the New Zealand Parliament voted to approve legislation recognising the Whanganui River as a legal person. “I am the river and the river is me” . S.12 of the legislation recognises “the river is an indivisible and living whole incorporating all its physical and metaphysical elements”.
On 19th December 2022, the United Nations (UN) Biodiversity Conference (COP 15) agreed a landmark agreement to halt and reverse biodiversity loss: the Kunming to Montreal Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework. It states: The framework recognizes and considers these diverse value systems and concepts, including, for those countries that recognize them, rights of nature and rights of Mother Earth, as being an integral part of its successful implementation.
How are Rights of Nature Implemented globally?
Environmental Constitutionalism, as with Ecuador’s constitution, rights of nature have been included in an overarching piece of legislation that gives constitutional effect to the protection and conservation of nature.
Legal Personhood as with the Whanganui River in New Zealand which grants natural entities legal personhood, this gives nature standing in court, but in addition gives courts a wider scope to take ecological science evidence into consideration in deciding on precaution and remediation.
Who speaks for the River?
Typically in the global movement nature and river rights are associated with indigenous communities, who already recognise nature rights through belief systems, cultural and moral values. In New Zealand the local Maori community are recognised in law as being able to give the river a voice. This is simply enshrining in law what the community have always recognised; that the Whanganui River is an ancestor.
Why are Rights of Rivers needed in the UK?
Nature is in crisis and as a species it is critical that humans reframe our relationship with nature, the UN has called for this. The UK is in one of the 10% most nature depleted countries in the world. Our rivers in the UK are in serious trouble with only 14% reaching good ecological status and no river reaching good chemical status.
Our environmental laws and regulations are failing to prevent the destruction of nature. Existing law is not being enforced and overarching legal environmental principles are marginalised. The existing regulatory structures for monitoring, management and enforcement of rivers are not fit for purpose.
Most of our laws are based around humans and their property, what they own and the protection of that which is owned. Our laws completely disregard the infinite numbers of species that we share the planet with.
Rights of rivers provides a new way of thinking about the natural world and provides legal mechanisms for reflecting the other, nature and non-human species.
Rights of Rivers in Lewes?
It is unlikely that we will have any overarching piece of UK legislation anytime soon, recognising rights of nature.
However there are opportunities at a local level. We will be exploring what opportunities may already be available such as under various Local Government Acts and the potential use of conservation covenants. Also we want to explore representational rights of the Ouse at forums such a planning meetings and in neighbourhood plans