By Helen Louise George
Rios Vivos has two parts: a conference of speakers (called the Forum) and a multi-day display of arts and music (called the Festival). The first will emphasize education and collaboration, while the second will be a celebration of the local Atoyac River and other waterways.
The Forum (March 19-20): This event will feature prominent voices, from Mexico and abroad, speaking on new approaches to restoring rivers to health. One of these approaches is establishing legal rights for rivers. Featured speakers include former Minister of the Environment of Mexico City Martha Delgado, seasoned Pueblan rivers defender Veronica Mastretta, and the Governor of the State of Puebla, José Antonio Gali Fayad (Tony Gali), amongst many others. ELC’s close partner Cuatro al Cubo will speak on their initiatives, including the plan to bring back to life those “invisible rivers” that have been built over by the megalopolis of Mexico City.
There will be international speakers, too. The incredible Tierra Digna – who won legal rights for Colombia’s Atrato River in the country’s Constitutional Court – will speak about their own experiences of protecting rivers. And the lead negotiator on behalf of securing legal rights for the Whanganui River in New Zealand, Gerrard Albert, will have a prerecorded speech, as well.
Last but not least, Directing Attorney Grant Wilson will also speak (in Spanish!) at the event to discuss ELC’s work on the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Rivers – an effort to define the rights to which all rivers are entitled. The goal of this initiative is to establish robust legal rights for every major river in the world within 20 years. Mr. Wilson will also update attendees on ELC’s collaboration with groups in Mexico working to establish legal rights for its waterways, as well as our rights of rivers projects in Nigeria, Brazil, the United States, and many other locations.
The Festival (March 17-22): The Festival will celebrate the sacred Atoyac River and also pay tribute to the environmental movement that seeks to protect and restore nature in Mexico. Activities include water singing on the banks of the Atoyac River (during World Water Day on March 22), dance, music, art, ceremony, sound healing, and more. The event will feature prominent artists and spiritual leaders from Mexico and worldwide – including ELC’s partner Danielea Castell of Water Harmony, who will travel from Canada. “Guardians of the water” will also lead ceremonies honoring the Atoyac and other precious rivers.
Protecting the Atoyac
The Atoyac is one of the most polluted rivers in Mexico. Some have declared the river to be dead – although its supporters believe it can thrive once again. The Atoyac flows through the states of Puebla and Tlaxcala. Every day, almost 150 tonnes (over 32,1875 pounds) of organic waste is dumped into the river. It is also polluted by over 50 pollutants – including suspended solids, heavy metals, volatile organic compounds, and other contaminants from petrochemical, textile, and other industries.
Not only are its aquatic ecosystems devastated, the contaminated river raises health concerns for many of the 2.3 million people in the surrounding area. Serious disease risks include hemolytic anemia, kidney failure, and many others. And despite the severe pollution, farms rely upon the Atoyac to grow food for local communities.
However, local and national groups in Mexico are determined to restore the Atoyac to health. A diverse group of environmental leaders, local communities, governmental officials, businesses, and others are uniting to achieve this shared goal. Many of them will participate at the Living Rivers Forum and Festival.
In particular, ELC and our partners believe that securing fundamental legal rights for the Atoyac is a necessary step towards its recovery. What would this mean in practice? It would mean that the Atoyac has a legal right to, at minimum, enough flows to meet its basic ecological needs. It would mean that the government, local companies, and communities would create enforceable plans to stop polluting the Atoyac – and to clean up the pollution that has already occurred. And it would mean that the Atoyac would have a seat at the table for any decisions affecting its well being, and be represented by one or more legal guardians. These are only a few examples of many.
Protecting the Magdalena and Other Rivers in Mexico
During its trip to Mexico, ELC will also meet with environmental leaders, politicians, and stakeholders in Mexico City to advance the local rights of rivers movement. Recently, Cuatro al Cubo, with legal support from ELC, led an effort to secure legal rights for waterways in Mexico City. As a result of this joint effort, the Legislative Assembly of the Federal District (Asamblea Legislativa del Distrito Federal) included the rights of waterways within the recently approved Water Sustainability Law of Mexico City (Ley de Sustentabilidad Hídrica de la Ciudad de México).
While the law is still pending final publication, once implemented, it will be a landmark victory for waterways in Mexico City. This law can help restore to health the Magdalena River, which is the city’s last free-flowing river, as some 45 others are constrained in underground pipes and buried under layers of concrete.
Eventually, our partners believe, the rights of rivers can be recognized nationwide, such as through recognition in the General Water Law in Mexico (Ley General de Aguas en México). By doing so, Mexico can be a global leader in the movement to establish legal rights for rivers, creating a model for all other countries to follow. Having worked with many of the amazing environmental defenders in Mexico, I am confident that this dream will come true.
As we continue to fight for the rights of rivers across the globe, we must look to evolve our legal system into something better. We created our laws, and we can change them, too. We should not feel restricted by what we have done, but rather empowered by what we can do. And giving legal rights to rivers – including the Atoyac, Magdalena, and others in Mexico – is the blueprint for restoring these precious waterways to health. We look forward to continuing this work with our partners in Mexico.