The Amazon River Needs Rights Recognition Now

 Photo credit: Yann Arthus Bertrand

Photo credit: Yann Arthus Bertrand

By Raquel Hiebra

The River

The Amazon River, with an average flow rate of 215 million liters per second, wins the title of world’s largest river in terms of water volume.[1] In one single day, the Amazon discharges more water into the ocean than the Thames River does during the whole year.[2] This volume of water is equivalent to 20% of the world's river waters.[3] Moreover, at 6,868 km. (4,267.5773 mi.),[4] the Amazon competes with the Nile for the title of world’s biggest river in terms of surface area.[5]

The Amazon starts in Peru, at the Andes Mountains, and flows through Brazil before meeting the Atlantic Ocean. In Brazil, the river arrives as the Solimões and becomes the Amazon when it meets with the Negro River.[6] At this meeting, Solimões’ clear waters do not mix with the Negro’s dark waters, the result is a beautiful natural phenomenon.[7] Pororoca is another unique natural phenomenon which is best observed in September and March, during the biannual equinoxes. On higher ocean tides (new and full moons), water flows in from the Atlantic to the river, causing a reverse flow in which waters run upstream with great force, forming a tidal bore with an audible noise.[8]

The Amazon river basin covers an area of more than 7,000,000 square kilometers (2,702,715 square miles), and has more than 1,000 tributaries.[9] It is the largest basin in the world and runs through Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela, Guyana, Bolivia and Brazil.[10]

Francisco de Orellana was the first European to travel from the source to the mouth of the Amazon, and he was the one that named the river as Amazon, because female warriors holding bows and arrows constantly attacked his expedition, reminding Orellana of the Amazon warriors from Greek myth.[11]

Archaeologists estimate that more than 3 million indigenous people lived in the Amazonian basin in the pre-Columbian period. These civilizations were highly developed due to selective cultivation, and use of fire to grow crops in a more fertile land.[12] Reports from the first Europeans to explore the basin, during the 16th and 17th centuries, mention the abundance of food, and the high population density of numerous "nations" that inhabited the region.[13]

However, rapid depopulation occurred during the colonization period due to war, slavery, and the spread of new viruses. Furthermore, the Catholic Church, responsible for converting indigenous peoples to Christianity, did not contribute to keeping their culture and values alive. Between 1750 and 1850, the indigenous Amazon population became the minority in the region.[14]

Regardless of all threats, the Amazon’s indigenous population managed to survive. In Brazil, there are around 180 Tribes with almost 208,000 people living in the Amazon region.[15] Currently, most of the Tribes do not rely entirely on their traditions to survive, however, growing of crops, hunting, and fishing are still crucial to them.[16]

There are also a lot of small communities that live across the Amazonian basin. In Amazonas, a Brazilian state crossed by the Amazon River, there are around 350 small communities that live on the river’s banks with approximately 37,000 people. Most of the communities were formed at the end of the 19th century due to rubber exploitation. Although the rubber cycle has declined, small groups remained in the region, forming small communities.[17]

The population of the riverbank communities faces the lack of crucial public services such as basic sanitation. Most of them do not have any medical support, and it may take two hours for a student to commute to the nearest school.[18] In practice, the Amazon supports the basic needs of such communities by providing water, fish, and transportation. Moreover, besides governmental support, any fish surplus is the main source of their low income[19].

Regarding its biodiversity, the Amazon’s basin encompasses a variety of landscapes and ecosystems, including the biggest rainforest on the planet, other rainforests, floodplain forests, and savannas[20]. It has the world’s greatest diversity of fish, with more than 3,000 species.[21] Moreover, its forest possesses a huge amount of stored carbon (90-140 billion metric tons of carbon), which has the potential to accelerate global warming if not stewarded properly.[22]

This description of the Amazon River’s characteristics helps to show the river’s importance, not only for the local people, but also for the planet’s entire ecosystem.

Threats to the Amazon River

Considering its great importance, it is natural to think that such a river should be protected and not jeopardized in any way, correct? However, unfortunately it is not a reality. The Amazon has to fight daily threats in order to follow its flow.

The Amazon rainforest is being cut down to free land for raising crops and cattle farming, affecting the river, which in some areas is presenting a higher level of pollutants such as phosphorus, carbon, and nitrogen. Studies from 2002 performed at Ji-Paraná River, an Amazonian basin river, revealed that in deforested areas elements such as carbon, phosphorus and nitrogen that would normally be absorbed by the forest and its soil are being carried into the rivers due to rains and the erosion of the rivers’ banks. The electric conductivity[23] found on tributaries of Ji-Paraná (Rolim de Moura, Urupá, and Jaru) showed a rate of 50 to 100 μS/cm, values that are 20 times higher than those found in preserved areas of the basin.[24]

Moreover, frequent forest burnings, aiming to open space to grow cattle and crops, decrease fauna diversity. After a burning, 78% of animals and plants are reduced[25]. Such burnings also affect the surrounding fauna of the Amazon river, changing the species that live in the river, its biodiversity, and the river’s own metabolism[26].

When the river crosses Macapá, a Brazilian city which concentrates most of the population of Amapá, it suffers with the discharge of untreated sewage. On average, each of Macapá’s citizens produces half a liter of sewage per day which goes directly into the Amazon river and its tributaries.[27]

The Amazon river is also impacted due to damming. There are 140 hydroelectric dams in operation or under construction along the river, and there are proposals for another 428 dams. Considering these projects, scientists argue that even if only a fraction of such dams are implemented, impacts on the river will be disastrous. The huge number of dams will retain most of the river’s sediments and nutrients, stifling life for species from the river. A broad study involving ecologists, engineers, economists, and geologists from universities around the world concluded that no river in the world, not even the huge Amazon, could survive 568 dams.[28]

In addition, activities such as commercial fishing, bio-piracy, poaching, logging, and mining[29] do not contribute to improving the odds of the Amazon river.

Selling Off Amazon’s Biodiversity

A bid promoted by the Brazilian government in 2013 sold the rights of oil exploration in the Amazon’s estuary, which was acquired by a consortium of companies, among them, the French Total, and the British BP (responsible for the largest marine oil spill in the history of petroleum, in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010). Currently, Total, BP, and another 3 companies have opened environmental processes within IBAMA (Brazilian Environmental Agency) seeking environmental licenses to start off their activities in the Amazon’s estuary.

Oil Spills in the Amazon’s Fragile Ecosystem

Another of the daily threats faced by the Amazon is the risk of oil spills in its estuary. A problem that if it occurs, besides the devastation of the river and the sea’s ecosystems, would also threaten one of the largest reef systems in the world.

The reef was revealed to the world in 2016. It presents a unique ecosystem with a rare and, so far, unknown diversity of species. Researchers estimate the reef covers an area of 50,000 km² (19305.11 mi²). Scientists have already recognized 40 species of corals, 60 species of sponges (29 previously unknown), and 73 species of fish.[30]

At least, among other elements, the new reef helped IBAMA to delay the issuance of their licenses until the completion of environmental studies. In August 2017, IBAMA required additional information related to Total’s license process, due to the discovery of the coral reef. In December 2017, IBAMA also did not issue the license to BP, and required additional information related to its process. Such requirements of additional information are a signal that the licenses will not be issued at the present moment, but it does not mean that a license will not be issued once Total and BP complete their process.[31] Moreover, the Brazilian government suspended any new bid processes to exploit oil in the area until 2019.[32]

Environmental groups are watching such processes closely. Greenpeace, which helped to release information about the reef, supports the campaign “Defend Amazon reef”, and fights to pressure oil companies to not exploit oil in Amazon’s estuary. There is an online petition urging Total and BP to cancel their plans to drill oil near Amazon’s reef.[33] 

Although oil exploitation in Amazon’s estuary has not yet begun, it is an activity that has been developed in the Peruvian Amazonian basin for more than 40 years, and its negative impact in the Western Amazon is a sad reality for the environment. More than 190 oil spills have been recorded in Peru since 1997, according to Peru's energy and mining agency. [34] In 2016 alone, 7 oil spills, representing an amount of almost 10,000 barrels, happened in the Peruvian Amazon. [35]

Scientists still do not know the real impacts of such spills in the long-term in the Peruvian Amazon. However, a study from January 2016, by Peru's National Institute of Health, pointed out that the levels of lead, cadmium and mercury in the blood of Amazonian children who live in affected areas were higher than those allowed in adults — and that it could affect their cognitive and motor development. [36] Another study from 2014, conducted by Rosell-Melé, an environmental chemist at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, showed tapirs and other species of mammals ingesting soils contaminated with oil compounds in the damaged areas of the Peruvian Amazon. [37] The point is, indigenous communities, which depend on the river for fresh water and fish, also hunt such animals. In the oil damaged region of Loreto alone, there are 500 indigenous territories, and five reserves for people in voluntary isolation. [38]

Oil exploitation is also a reality in the Amazonian basin of Ecuador. Chevron has exploited oil in this region for more than 30 years, and its activities caused widespread devastation of the ecosystem, and severely affected indigenous communities. To name a few examples, such exploitation resulted in 18 billion gallons of wastewater being dumped into rivers and streams; the construction of more than 900 open-air, unlined toxic waste pits that leach toxins into the soil and groundwater; release of contaminants through spills, spreading oil on roads, gas flaring, and burning of crude; and the creation of a pipeline and road system that has opened pristine rainforest to uncontrolled and widespread clearing, resulting in more than a million acres of deforestation. [39] At the height of its operations, Chevron was dumping an estimated 4 million gallons of oil per day. [40] 

Currently, more than 30,000 people are in a class action lawsuit in Ecuador fighting to hold Chevron accountable for the damage. The contamination of the waters directly impaired the lives of tens of thousands who relied on the waters for their daily activities. Scientific surveys pointed out that the rates of cancer are elevated in areas of oil contamination. Studies have also found high rates of childhood leukemia, and an atypical number of miscarriages. Moreover, children have been born with birth defects. [41]

What Rights of Rivers Would Look Like for the Amazon

Now, imagine how it would be if the Amazon River had rights, how it would be if it could stand up for its legal rights in a court of law. Rights that would include the right to flow; the right to perform essential functions within its ecosystem; the right to be free from pollution; the right to feed and be fed by sustainable aquifers; the right to native biodiversity; and the right to restoration[42].

Personhood for rivers has already been recognized in New Zealand, India,[43] and Colombia, and nature’s inherent rights are recognized in the Amazonian basin bathed countries of Bolivia and Ecuador. Thus, why not apply the same rights to the biggest river on the planet? Why not give the Amazon the chance to stand for its rights and fight against unsustainable exploitation?

If the Amazon had full legal rights, then any unsustainable exploitation that would impair those rights could be challenged, with the river itself having standing in a court of law. When making such a claim, the river would be considered a legal entity, fighting for its own legal rights. In practice, humans would have to stand in a court of law to enforce such rights on behalf of the river, acting as legal guardians – a model that is already familiar to lawyers who represent children, disabled persons, and so forth. This model would in turn empower local communities, environmental groups, and others seeking to support the river’s rights.

Why not take the example of Vilcabamba River, a successful example of a river that enforced its rights, and let the Amazon fight for justice against whoever threatens its rights? As background, in the Vilcabamba River case, a construction project aiming to widen the Vilcabamba-Quinara road was depositing large quantities of rock and excavation material in the Vilcabamba River, increasing the river’s flow and the risk of flood disasters during the rainy  season.[44] The Ecuadorian Appeal Court granted a constitutional injunction in favor of the fundamental rights of the Vilcabamba River, ruling that the Provincial Government was responsible for causing significant damage to the Vilcabamba River, and ordering the restoration of the affected river corridor.[45] In other words, the government had to make the rights-bearing Vilcabamba River whole again.

Now, based only on the threats briefly mentioned above, imagine all of the reparations orders and rulings against future and imminent threats that could favor the Amazon River if it had rights. Rights for nature, including rights for our most precious and important rivers, seems to be the next logical step in our environmental governance, especially if we believe in a sustainable planet for future generations.

After all, economic benefits from the environment will not exist without an environment to support it!


[1] https://super.abril.com.br/ideias/rio-amazonas-agua-agua/

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] http://mundoeducacao.bol.uol.com.br/geografia/o-rio-amazonas.htm

[5] https://pt.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rio_Amazonas#Extens%C3%A3o

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pororoca

[9] https://pt.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rio_Amazonas

[10] http://ambientes.ambientebrasil.com.br/amazonia/bacia_do_rio_amazonas/bacia_do_rio_amazonas.html

[11] http://riosdelplaneta.com/rio-amazonas/

[12] Id.

[13] http://www.scielo.br/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S0103-40142005000100015

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] https://es.mongabay.com/2007/11/habitantes-del-amazonas/

[17] https://oglobo.globo.com/sociedade/nas-vilas-ribeirinhas-do-amazonas-37-mil-pessoas-carecem-de-medicos-saneamento-14635488

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] http://wwf.panda.org/what_we_do/where_we_work/amazon/about_the_amazon/

[21] https://www.todamateria.com.br/bacia-amazonica/

[22] http://wwf.panda.org/what_we_do/where_we_work/amazon/about_the_amazon/

[23] a measurement used to determine water quality

[24] http://revistapesquisa.fapesp.br/2002/04/01/o-alerta-da-poluicao-nos-rios-da-amazonia/

[25] http://amazoniareal.com.br/queimadas-destroem-78-da-biodiversidade-da-amazonia/

[26] https://pib.socioambiental.org/pt/noticias?id=39091

[27] http://g1.globo.com/ap/amapa/noticia/2013/11/rio-amazonas-e-tao-poluido-quanto-o-rio-tiete-diz-ambientalista-no-amapa.html

[28] https://brasil.elpais.com/brasil/2017/06/14/economia/1497430161_506854.html

[29] https://www.rainforestcruises.com/jungle-blog/threats-facing-the-amazon-rainforest

[30] https://www.uol/noticias/especiais/corais-da-amazonia.htm#novos-leiloes-estao-previstos-para-2019

[31] http://epbr.com.br/foz-do-amazonas-bp-tambem-vai-complementar-estudos/

[32] https://www.uol/noticias/especiais/corais-da-amazonia.htm#tematico-1

[33] https://amazonreefs.org/

[34] http://www.dw.com/en/repeated-oil-spills-threaten-perus-amazon/a-35934538

[35] Id.

[36] http://www.dw.com/en/repeated-oil-spills-threaten-perus-amazon/a-35934538

[37] https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/oil-spills-stain-peruvian-amazon/

[38] Id.

[39] http://amazonwatch.org/work/chevron

[40] Id.

[41] Id.

[42] Universal Declaration of River Rights at https://www.earthlawcenter.org/river-rights/

[43] Unfortunately, the Supreme Court of India stayed the decision of the Uttarakhand High Court to recognize the rights of the Yamuna and Ganga Rivers, although efforts continue to permanently recognize the rights of these and other waterways in India.

[44] https://therightsofnature.org/first-ron-case-ecuador/

[45] http://www.gardenofparadise.net/Garden_of_Paradise/Rights_of_Nature_Lawsuit.html  and https://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2017/apr/21/rivers-legal-human-rights-ganges-whanganui