The Amazon is on fire! Can it save itself?

Granting legal rights to rivers is emerging as a novel approach to protecting river ecosystems and communities. Dr Elizabeth Macpherson and Julia Torres examine the rights of nature movement in the Colombian Amazon.

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amazon river, mist, morning
R. Riding, 2017. Early morning in the Amazon River.

74,000 fires have been burning for more than 30 days across the nearly one million hectares of Latin American Amazon comprising the world’s largest tropical rainforest. The fires have burnt through the territory of more than 400 distinct indigenous peoples, who have supplied world markets with natural resources for more than five centuries and, in turn, received the ‘curse of abundance’: water contamination, stock loss, deforestation and corresponding impacts to livelihoods.

Protecting the legal rights of nature, especially rivers and ecosystems, is emerging in the Colombian context as one way to respond to the Amazonian deforestation crisis.

Legal rights for rivers and ecosystems in the Colombian Amazon

amazon river, amazonia, river, community, boats
R. Riding, 2017. River communities’ life on the Amazon river.

In response to resource contamination, biodiversity loss and climate change, Colombia has taken the lead in granting legal rights to rivers and ecosystems. In 2016, Colombia’s Constitutional Court ordered the protection of the Atrato River as a ‘legal subject’ from illegal mining and deforestation, recognising the bio-cultural rights of Indigenous and Afro-descendant communities. The legal rights of the Colombian Amazon were similarly declared in 2018, in response to a claim by 25 children on behalf of future generations for a halt to Amazon deforestation, up 44% in the previous two years. In 2019, the Cauca and La Plata Rivers and ‘strategic ecosystems’ of the Nariño Department obtained rights as ‘legal subjects’ in Courts and the latest in an administrative decree.

cauca river, communities, village, boats, amazon, colombia
R. Riding, 2017. Cauca River and La Pintada community, Colombia.

However, rivers and ecosystems are highly dependent on humans to defend their rights, and it is not yet clear how rights for nature will be implemented in Colombia’s complex socio-political space. Former guerrilla leaders of Colombia’s ‘FARC’ have already announced a return to arms against the Government’s poor compliance on agreements and Indigenous organisations for the Amazon are blaming the fires on the Government’s pro-development politics.

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R. Riding, 2017. Belen in the city of Iquitos in the Peruvian Amazon. Iquitos is only accessible by river or air, it is the most populated town in the heart of the Amazon with nearly half million habitants.

Still, the rights of nature movement is developing rapidly in different contexts in the world. It is shaping the culture and narrative of the way we think about rivers. Where existing laws and institutions have failed us, we owe it to nature to give legal personality a try.

Dr. Elizabeth Macpherson is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Canterbury School of Law. Her research is on natural resources regulation and environmental law in comparative contexts with special interest in indigenous and environmental resource rights Latin America and Australasia. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

Julia Torres is a PhD Student in Geography at the University of Canterbury, under the supervision of Dr Ann Brower and Dr Elizabeth Macpherson.