Colombia's Atrato River is one of the most polluted waterways in the in the country. Now, thanks to a decision by Colombia's Constitutional Court, the Atrato has its own legally recognized right to "protection, conservation, maintenance and restoration."
Yes, it's a river, and it has rights.
This remarkable development happened because caring, concerned people banded together. Representatives of affected indigenous groups, Afro-Colombian organizations and the NGO Tierra Digna brought the case in 2015. Their aim was to require better protection for the Atrato River and the people who live within its basin and along its shores.
The Atrato River's troubles come largely from illegal gold mining. Despite the overwhelming level of mercury pollution caused by all this mining activity, the Colombian government has done little to stem the contamination, according to this decision. In fact, a shocking 90 percent of the mercury used during mining is simply discarded into the river.
Colombia aims to base its economy on mining, unfortunately. This priority automatically puts the environment and indigenous populations at a disadvantage, given that the mining process relies on mercury to extract the desired gold.
Sadly, many who rely on the river don't even know that the fish they regularly take from its waters are laden with mercury poisoning.
Rampant deforestation from illegal logging operations also contributes to the Atrato River's poor condition. Unfortunately, the people who care the most have also been those with little power to force change. Armed groups defend the logging and mining activities, ensuring that locals can't speak out.
But in an unexpected turn of events, the court decision found the Colombian government responsible for "violating fundamental rights to life, health, water, food security, the healthy environment, culture and the territory of ethnic communities by their negligent conduct…"
Specifically, the court claimed that failing to stop illegal mining caused "serious humanitarian and environmental crisis in the Atrato river basin, its tributaries and surrounding territories."
"It's a symbolic ruling, not only for the environment but also it is the first time that the Constitutional Court welcomed a new framework of rights, called biocultural rights," Ximena González, an attorney for Tierra Digna, told Mongabay. "Here, the direct and narrow relation between biodiversity and culture is pointed out. This relation is indispensable and moreover essential for ethnic communities, especially in Chocó."
The court ruling stated, in part:
According to this interpretation, the human species is only one more event within a long evolutionary chain that has lasted for billions of years and we [humans] therefore, in no way, are the owner of other species, biodiversity or natural resources, or the fate of the planet. Consequently, this theory conceives nature as a true subject of rights that must be recognized by states and exercised under the tutelage of their legal representatives, for example, by the communities that inhabit it or have a special relationship with it.
Imagine that -- a court recognizing that nature ought to have legal rights and that humans don't automatically have dominion over the earth and its resources.
"Illegal mining that is realized in the Atrato river basin defies any idea of responsible use of water and forests. It is a violation of the fundamental right to water," the court ruled.
Surprisingly, the Atrato is not the first river to gain recognition of legal rights. In fact, it's the fourth within a single year. The others include New Zealand's Whanangui River and India's Ganga and Jamuna rivers.
But not everyone's happy with this idea of rivers gaining rights, of course.
Wesley J. Smith, writing for Evolution News, argues, "If nature has rights -- but clearly, no responsibilities -- everything has rights, by definition. In the end, that will mean the hard-fought-for principle of human rights itself will be profoundly subverted."
I think that concern is a bit over the top, don't you?
In a world where "humans first" is the mantra of nearly every civilization that's ever existed, there's little danger that a "nature rights" movement will detrimentally impact human rights. Well, unless you're worried about the "right" to do harmful things to the environment.
Regardless, this court ruling is an encouraging step toward environmental protection. Now we just need to see whether the government of Colombia has the strength of will to enforce the decision.