By Eden Kinkaid, University of Arizona
In a recently passed ballot initiative, voters in Toledo, Ohio granted legal rights to Lake Erie, the 11th largest lake in the world. As The New York Times reports, Lake Erie has seen numerous environmental crises in the last several years, including a major algal bloom in 2014 that rendered water temporarily unfit for drinking and bathing. This incident, and others like it, have been linked to agricultural runoff from surrounding farms that fueled the rapid growth of the toxic algae.
These ongoing threats to the health of the lake led a coalition of locals, Toledoans for Safe Water, to advocate for its protection. Working in partnership with the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, an organization known for developing “rights of nature” legislation, advocates prepared a Lake Erie Bill of Rights that was included on the February 26 ballot. A majority of voters – 61% – voted in favor of the measure. While the success of the initiative is inspiring, the decision is already facing legal challenges on the grounds that it does not have legal standing and that it will negatively impact area farmers’ livelihoods.
In the last fifteen years, the geographical spread and success of “rights of nature” measures, like Lake Erie’s, has been quite remarkable. The first such measure, an ordinance in Tamaqua Borough designed to outlaw fracking, emerged in 2006. Since then, the concept of “rights of nature” has appeared in ordinances, laws, resolutions, and even national constitutions around the world. It has been used by indigenous groups, communities, cities, states, and nations to protect natural bodies, including rivers, ecosystems, and sacred territories. How are we to understand this new wave of environmental activism? Will the rights of nature stand? Will they be a solution to the myriad environmental issues facing populations across the globe?
In a recently published article in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, I consider these questions through an analysis of another recent rights of nature ruling: a decision granting legal personhood to the Ganga (Ganges River) in India. Like the Lake Erie initiative, this case grants legal personhood to the Ganga to protect it from rampant pollution and development. The similarities between these cases, however, stop there. The rights of the Ganga were declared in a court ruling concerning illegal encroachment on river banks, whereas the Lake Erie decision was a ballot initiative. The Ganga case focused on the sacredness of the river to India’s Hindu majority rather than the more ecological concerns of the Lake Erie Bill of Rights. Further, each case advocates for different ways to govern the natural bodies. In the case of the Ganga, governance strategies are based on legal precedents governing the personhood and trusteeship of religious idols in temples. Recognizing the central role of Hinduism in the ruling, critics worry that it may come with unintended consequences. Given the uneven history of environmental governance in India and the current religiously polarized political moment, the concern is that the ruling could be enforced selectively to police Muslims and other marginalized populations who live and work near the river.
It is clear, then, that these two decisions, like many rights of nature rulings, are born of radically different contexts and will likely have a variety of impacts and implications. To understand the significance and potential implications of these rulings, I argue we need to attend closely to the geographical, historical, and cultural contexts in which they occur. In my article, “Rights of nature’ in translation” I attempt to come to terms with the marked differences visible within rights of nature activism around the world. In some sense, “rights of nature” appears as a global movement to protect natural entities, yet these cases emerge from very specific and irreconcilable geographical and cultural contexts. They demonstrate understandings of the environment and governance that are clearly linked to specific places, yet they make use of a seemingly “universal” legal language and an international set of precedents. We might ask then, are the rights of the Ganga the same as the rights of Lake Erie? Given their vastly different historical and geographic contexts, does the rights of nature mean the same thing in each case?
In my article, I argue that this question should make us rethink the form of “global” social movements. Rights of nature discourse circulates transnationally, yet is not global in the sense of being “universal.” Indeed, I describe how the terms “rights” and “nature” become translated and contextualized in specific places and projects of governance. Rather than seeing “rights of nature” as a global movement then, I argue that we should see it as a “boundary object” (Leigh Star 2010), a shared term linking together different communities of interpretation and practice. This way, we can understand both the mobile, “global” moments of “rights of nature,” while still attending to the ways in which the concept is deployed and transformed in particular contexts. Indeed, this flexibility and multi-dimensional aspect of rights of nature discourse makes it a fascinating object of study for geographers, challenging us to rethink longstanding meanings of geographical boundaries and scales. Thinking the rights of nature “in translation” requires us to rethink the “local” and the “global” and to reimagine their various divergences and connections.
About the author: Eden Kinkaid is a doctoral student in Geography at the University of Arizona. Eden conducts field-based research in north India on issues of agriculture and environmental governance. More information about Eden’s work and other publications is available here.
Kinkaid, E. (2019). “Rights of nature” in translation: Assemblage geographies, boundary objects, and translocal social movements. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers (0)0: 1-16.
Williams, T. (17 Feb. 2019). Legal rights for Lake Erie? Voters in Ohio city will decide.” The New York Times. Retrieved online 19 March 2019 from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/17/us/lake-erie-legal-rights.html.