Yenny Vega Cárdenas, President of the International Legal Center for Nature’s Rights (CJID or Centre Juridique International des Droits de la Nature) and Nathalia Parra Meza, Vice-president of the same Centre, read about the Atrato River in Colombia gaining rights recognition which inspired them so much and then they decided to co-found CJID. Earth Law Center speaks with them about their initiative seeking rights recognition for the St. Lawrence River.
Meet the St. Lawrence River
Known by the Tuscarora as Kahnawáʼkye and by the Mohawk as Kaniatarowanenneh, (meaning "big waterway"), the Saint Lawrence River lies in the middle latitudes of North America.
The Saint Lawrence River flows in a roughly north-easterly direction, connecting the Great Lakes with the Atlantic Ocean and forming the primary drainage outflow of the Great Lakes Basin[i]. It traverses one part of the Ontario province In Canada, and is the hearth of the Province of Quebec (Canada) because the shores of the river are home to over 80% of Québec’s population.
Importance of the St. Lawrence River
For thousands of years, the Algonquin and Iroquois peoples have lived along its banks. From the 16th century onwards, the St. Lawrence served as a gateway for European settlers, explorers and fur traders. Habitants cultivated its shores in long narrow farms that gave each family access to the river.
River otters, beluga whales and more than 100 species of fish live in the St. Lawrence River. Meanwhile, its sandbanks and river reefs provide a seasonal staging area for massive flocks of migratory birds, including almost all of the world’s snow geese.[ii]
Threats to the St Lawrence River
“One of the biggest threats to the health of the St. Lawrence River is what the Petroleum Resources Act allows – oil and gas drilling and hydraulic fracking on Quebec’s territory,” states Carole Dupuis, general coordinator of the Quebec Hydrocarbon Vigilance Collective (RVHQ).
A study conducted in the US Appalachian basin and published in 2013 in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences reveals that shale gas exploitation by means of fracking can have long-term effects on biodiversity and over an unusually large geographic area compared to other industries. The main long-term impacts, which are likely to be perceived over a large area, are habitat loss and fragmentation, chemical pollution, water quality degradation and alteration of the hydrological regime. Other effects, including noise and light disturbance and air quality degradation, may be more local and short-term.[iii]
Other threats include invasive species and water level regulation. The region's ecosystem is bending under the weight of the 186 species introduced into the River and Lakes. Some scientists worry that the ecosystem of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River may be close to collapse because of these species.[iv]
With a massive hydropower dam blocking the River in the Massena/Cornwall region, water levels on the Upper St. Lawrence River are manually regulated. The management plan that has been in place for the past 50 years has caused significant damage to tens of thousands of acres of wetlands in the region as it doesn’t reflect the latest scientific understanding of how fragile riparian ecosystems are.[v]
St Lawrence Belugas
Numbers of belugas dropped significantly in the 1900s due to commercial and recreational hunting for their flesh, hide and oils. Despite protections that were finally granted in 1979, the population has not recovered. Eighty per cent of Quebec’s beluga population lives along the shores of the St Lawrence River where 2 billion gallons (8 billion litres) of wastewater and industrial contaminants have been dumped.
These contaminants are absorbed by marine life in the river and then eaten by belugas further downstream. Studies have shown that the St. Lawrence belugas are one of the world’s most contaminated marine mammals. For decades, autopsies of belugas showed that many were dying of cancer. As people grew concerned over the quality of the drinking water from the St. Lawrence, chemicals like PAHs and PCBs were regulated in the 1970s.[vi]
More about the CJIDN Initiative for St. Lawrence River Rights
CJIDN intends to use research to promote the recognition of Nature's rights, with a focus on environmental justice and water rights. Like Earth Law Center, CJIDN provides legal advice while also taking legal action on behalf of partners and members, defending Nature's rights in front of international and Canadian tribunals.
Yenny Vega Cardenas says, "As an specialist in Water Law when I have heard about the recognition of the Atrato River as a non-human person in Colombia I was really inspired". She also told us that "is in that moment when I invited Nathalia Parra Meza to help me to start a research in that specific topic in the frame of an International Global Justice research project that I was co-chairing".
Both as lawyers in Colombia and in Canada, Yenny and Nathalia started the research and went to Colombia to meet the people involved in that case. They then co-wrote a paper in Spanish and English about the Atrato River case. “We then decided to co-found the CJIDN and also had the possibility to host a summer school in Costa Rica related to the Rights of Nature, in which undergraduate and graduate law students from Montreal and Latin-America participated,” recalls Yenny. Students inspired by this theory, asked to join CJID as volunteers. In collaboration with Professor Daniel Turp, CJID co-authored a paper published in an important journal of the Quebec Province, about the possibility of giving rights to Saint-Laurence River.
CJID then started a petition to ask main political parties in Quebec to support the initiative, 1 week before the provincial elections!. With 400 signatures collected from both individuals and organizations. "With the help of three students, Anthony Breton, Inès Benadda and Laurence Sicotte, we sent it to many candidates from different political partis, just 2 days before the elections," says Yenny.
One party supports the petition and is now discussing inside the party to gain consensus. Students drafted a prelaminar French version of a bill recognizing rights to the River, and CJID is currently completing the draft which will be translated into English.
CJID plans to "present the draft in French and in English to a supporter of the project, in order to ask the Parliament of Quebec to discuss the draft bill in order to recognize the St. Lawrence River as a living person".
Yenny says she is "convinced that Movement of the recognition of Nature's Rights snowballing, and is inspiring young leaders to change the traditional paradigm. We have to be more respectful not only with present and future generations, but also with all the species that inhabited the planet."
To get involved today:
Yenny Vega Cardenas, Présidente