|Image credit: Earth Law Centre blog|
The Earth Law Centre announced on 28 February that it is partnering with the River Ethiope Trust Foundation (RETFON) to campaign for legal rights for the River Ethiope in Nigeria. As well as its ecological value, the river is sacred to the Olokun and Igbe religions, and this combination of spiritual and environmental values has been the common factor for other rivers who have received legal rights.
If successful, the River Ethiope would be the first river in Africa to receive legal rights, which could be the beginning of a new approach to river protection and management.
But that's a big IF. Recent attempts to extend legal rights to rivers, and build on the success story of New Zealand (which continues to use the 'legal person' as part of treaty settlement negotiations) and Colombia have struggled. In 2017, environmental advocates tried to use the courts to create legal rights for the Colorado River, but were ultimately forced to withdraw their lawsuit under threat of legal sanctions.
Even if the campaign is successful, giving the new rights force and effect in law will not be straightforward. The river will need RETFON to act as its 'voice', which requires not only the ability to advocate for the river, but also the funding and organizational capacity to enforce the rights of the river.
Still, this campaign is more evidence of the global interest in extending legal rights to rivers. Although still largely untested in law (the Vilcabamba case in Ecuador remains the most successful application of legal rights to protect a river), each campaign raises awareness of the importance of protecting rivers, both for their own sakes, and for the people who depend on them.