Category: Indigenous Rights

Sydney Valley, Clayoquot Sound

I am the river and the river is me

A Māori tribe made history recently when a New Zealand river was granted legal rights. The Whanganui River has been granted personhood and rights, thus settling the longest running court case in New Zealand’s history.

The Whanganui iwi [tribe] of the Māori fought for 140 years to protect their river. “The reason we have taken this approach is because we consider the river an ancestor and always have,” said Gerrard Albert, the lead negotiator for the Whanganui iwi. “We have fought to find an approximation in law so that all others can understand that from our perspective treating the river as a living entity is the correct way to approach it, as an indivisible whole, instead of the traditional model for the last 100 years of treating it from a perspective of ownership and management.”

A river with rights
The Whanganui River will have all the rights, duties and liabilities that come with personhood. Two guardians will be appointed to represent the river; one from the Māori, and one from the Crown. The settlement also includes financial redress of NZ$80 million, as well as NZ$1million to establish the legal framework for the river.

Māori tribes regard themselves as part of the universe, at one with and equal to the mountains, the rivers and the seas. The new law reflects and honours their worldview, and could set a precedent for other Māori tribes in New Zealand to follow.

“We can trace our genealogy to the origins of the universe,” said Albert. “And therefore rather than us being masters of the natural world, we are part of it. We want to live like that as our starting point. And that is not an anti-development, or anti-economic use of the river, but to begin with the view that it is a living being, and then consider its future from that central belief.”

A similar legal mechanism was used for the Te Urewera National Park in the central North Island, which became a legal entity in 2014.

Right to a healthy environment
Clayoquot Action’s mission statement says “Clayoquot Action stands for…the rights of Mother Earth”. This is related to, but different from the right to a healthy environment. Many nations have enshrined the right to a healthy environment in their constitutions, for example Spain, France, Portugal, Greece, and Finland.

However, according to a US group advocating for the rights of nature, “…as global warming accelerates and ecosystems are pushed to collapse, we are finding that the human right to a healthy environment cannot be achieved without securing rights of the environment itself. This means recognizing in law the rights of nature to be healthy and thrive.”

The draft Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth (modelled on the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights) was released in 2010 at the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in Bolivia. The Declaration has been submitted by Bolivia to the UN General Assembly for consideration.

The planet is a living being? Clearly, the idea that the Earth can be treated as property has not worked well for the planet, wild creatures, or humans. It’s time to fundamentally change the relationship between humankind and nature. Without clean air and clean water, and clean food, nothing else matters…

Imagine the day when the Sydney River in Ahousaht territory (pictured above) is recognized as having rights, with the ability to speak for itself against proposals which could harm it. May it be so!

Dan Lewis is Executive Director of Clayoquot Action.

P.S. Just this week two rivers in India were recognized as having rights!

Read the draft Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth.

Here’s the  Māori TV coverage about the Whanganui River.

Ahousaht First Nations vision

Ahousahts’ vision

Hereditary chiefs typically designate a speaker to speak for them in public. This is because when they say something, it can’t be taken back. So I was curious when I heard Chief Maquinna from Ahousaht was going to speak at a Raincoast Education Society event in Tofino about old growth forests—how was this going to work?

Lewis George is the hereditary chief of Ahousaht, and bears the traditional title m̓ukʷina (Maquinna), which he received from his late father Earl Maquinna George. The first thing he did last week was to explain why he was speaking. Hereditary chiefs can only speak for themselves when they have good news. And Ahousaht has good news!

The Ahousaht confederacy recently announced their marine- and land-use vision for their traditional territories (ḥaḥuułʔi). The community consensus is to protect their lands and waters, including the globally rare ancient rainforests—the massive cedars and spruces—of which they are the custodians. Continue reading

Tore Bongo presents Alexandra Morton petition to King of Norway

Alta reflections

The indigenous people of northern Europe are called Sami. They are known for herding reindeer on the tundra. What we learned while in Norway is that the coastal Sami culture centres on wild salmon, much like coastal Natives in what is now called British Columbia. These two species, with their predictable migration patterns, provided the protein on which a rich culture was founded—the Sami.

The Alta River in northern Norway is famous. The stretches downstream of Northern Europe’s biggest canyon teem with big salmon, and have been a mecca of sports fishing for many years. The reindeer herds also come to the banks of the headwaters to calve in the rich pastures.

A major dam on the Alta River?
Back in 1970, the Norwegian government announced plans to build a major hydroelectric dam on the Alta River. Questions about the reindeer, the wild salmon, or interference with Sami rights were not even considered. What became known as the Alta Controversy began as a conflict between the Sami and the Norwegian government. The Sami village of Masi was to be flooded, and people rightly feared extensive disruption of the environment. Eventually the resistance morphed into a People’s Movement which became a nationwide flashpoint for a growing awareness of the need to protect the environment and uphold indigenous rights. Continue reading

Sacred Headwaters

Beyond Boarding in the Sacred Headwaters

23 year old Tamo Campos grew up in North Vancouver. A sponsored snowboarder who chased winter for the last 12 years, he’s now putting roots into both environmental and humanitarian work.  This led him to cofound Beyond Boarding, to spread awareness in the Continue reading

Walk for Reconciliation

Walk for Reconciliation

Dan Lewis is a founding director of Clayoquot Action.

It’s not possible to work on conservation issues in British Columbia in this day and age without coming up against the reality that the issue of who owns the land has not been resolved to everyone’s satisfaction. The simple fact is that Canada’s sovereignty was established right over top of pre-existing indigenous sovereignty. This has resulted in uncertainty for governments and business, confusion for Canadian citizens, and injustice and suffering for First Nations.

So last week I decided to check out the federal government’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission National Event in Vancouver. The TRC is the federal government’s response to the legacy of the Indian Residential Schools run by the government and churches from 1875 to 1996.

The schools were an attempt by the church and state to eradicate indigenous cultures and languages—as was infamously said, “to kill the Indian in the child.” But indigenous peoples survived and this attempt at cultural genocide failed. However, the effects of the schools are intergenerational and are still being manifested. Native communities today are still in the process of healing. Continue reading