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"We see ourselves not as an owner of wild rice but a symbiotic partner and a parallel entity from the Creator," says Frank Bibeau, a lawyer from the Anishinaabe indigenous group in the U.S. and Canada.
Indigenous Approaches Written Into Law<p>"Conventional environmental laws are really about regulating how we use nature," says Mari Margil of CELDF. "The consequences of that have been so devastating that people in different parts of the world are saying we need to make a fundamental shift in our relationship with nature."</p><p>With the idea that indigenous peoples are the most reliable custodians of our planet now repeated by politicians and environmental NGOs alike, giving nature rights suggests a way their approaches might be adopted by broader society.</p><p>It was in this spirit that Ecuador became the first country to enshrine the rights of nature — personified as Pachamama, the Andean earth goddess — in its constitution, in 2008.</p><p><a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/Bolivia">Bolivia</a> and <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/Uganda" rel="noopener noreferrer">Uganda</a> have since enshrined the rights of nature in their constitutions, and <a href="https://celdf.org/2019/10/media-release-rights-of-nature-constitutional-amendment-introduced-in-swedens-parliament/" target="_blank">an amendment</a> was recently proposed for <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/Sweden" rel="noopener noreferrer">Sweden</a> to do the same.</p>
A Healthier Relationship With Nature?<p>Asserting that nature has intrinsic rights isn't just a legal tool to prosecute polluters. It also challenges the "ecosystem services" approach to environmental protection that costs up the economic value of clean air, water and biodiversity — and even the concept of conservation areas.</p><p>As a national park, land surrounding the Whanganui River in New Zealand was off limits to the Iwi Maori tribe who had hunted and fished there sustainably for generations. In 2017, the dispute was resolved by making the river a person in its own right, owned by neither the state nor the tribe.</p><p>Maori law professor Jacinta Ruru sees it as a major breakthrough that New Zealand law now reflects the relationship the country's indigenous people have with the environment — one that sees no division between what's good for people and the planet.</p><p>"My tribe — we'll talk about your veins in your arms as being like the riverways of the land," explains Ruru. "So you're seeing the health and wellbeing of who you are as a person, your health, your own happiness, as entirely connected with the health and wellbeing of the environment around us."</p>
Strategic Compromise<p>Ruru says it's too soon to judge the ecological impact of the Whanganui River's change of status. And it remains to be seen if the Rights of Manoomin will be any match for the interests invested in the pipeline.</p><p>In Ecuador's case, the new constitution has been used to block plantations and road-building that threatened forest, but it hasn't proved enough to transform an entire system geared toward economic development; cases brought by indigenous activists have ended in Pachamama's rights being trumped by those of <a href="https://static1.squarespace.com/static/55914fd1e4b01fb0b851a814/t/5748568c8259b5e5a34ae6bf/1464358541319/Kauffman++Martin+16+Testing+Ecuadors+RoN+Laws.pdf" target="_blank">businesses</a>.</p><p>Critics also <a href="https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/2514848618763807" target="_blank">point out</a> that making rivers and forests honorary people owes less to any indigenous deification of nature than to the Western rights discourse.</p><p>"There is a strategic relationship between indigenous communities and the rights of nature," says Mihnea Tanasescu, a political scientist who authored a book on the subject in Ecuador, "but there is not necessarily an intrinsic philosophical affinity, because rights are a very Western legal category."</p>
Conversation-Changer<p>Last year, one such case made international headlines. Residents of Toledo, a city on the shores of heavily polluted Lake Erie in the U.S. state of Ohio, voted to give the lake rights. A local farm responded by filing a lawsuit claiming this violated the rights of <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/agribusiness" rel="noopener noreferrer">agribusinesses</a>. </p><p>Since the bill was more or less quashed by Ohio state legislature, activists are fighting to revive it from legal limbo. But if nothing else, their struggle has drawn attention to the priorities of a legal system that treats nature as property but corporations as legal persons.</p><p>"Often people just don't think about these invisible systems that govern our world," Maloney says. "So as a starting point — and a conversation- and discourse-changer — the rights of nature is very powerful."</p>
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The outlook for eastern Africa's mountain gorillas is growing brighter, as a recent census released on Dec. 16 shows that the subspecies' numbers have risen since 2011. Scientists believe there are now at least 1,063 mountain gorillas living in the wild.
A team participates in a training for the census. Winnie Eckardt / Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund / Mongabay<p>In the 1980s, the known population of mountain gorillas (<em>Gorilla beringei beringei</em>) in the Virunga Mountains had dwindled to just 240 individuals, as lost habitat, hunting, disease and other threats had exacted a costly toll. By late 2018, though, more than three decades of "extreme conservation" involving the day-to-day protection of gorilla families appeared to be having an impact: A 2016 survey of the gorillas living in the Virungas revealed an increase to 604 animals.</p><p>At the time, scientists pegged the total number of individuals at more than 1,000, and the IUCN <a href="https://news.mongabay.com/2018/11/mountain-gorillas-recovery-prompts-downlisting-to-endangered-status/" target="_blank">changed the ape's status</a> on the <a href="https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/39999/17989719" target="_blank">Red List</a> from critically endangered to endangered.</p><p>But a census of the other mountain gorilla population, found further north in the Bwindi-Sarambwe ecosystem, hadn't taken place since 2011, when researchers figured it held 400 gorillas.</p>
A silverback mountain gorilla in Uganda. Skyler Bishop / Gorilla Doctors<p>The 2018 census of the Bwindi-Sarambwe population, which straddles the border between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, found evidence of at least 459 individuals. The 2011 census covered only Uganda's gorillas. In 2018, however, improved local security allowed teams to include DRC's Sarambwe Nature Reserve as well.</p><p>Mountain gorillas live in three different countries — Uganda, DRC and Rwanda. And the Virunga and Bwindi-Sarambwe populations aren't connected to each other: Though just 50 kilometers (31 miles) separates the edges of the two ranges, the landscape between them no longer has forest that can support gorillas. The researchers and trackers involved in the census say that the disconnected populations and their transboundary ranges have made cooperation vital to both the protection of the animals and to monitoring efforts.</p>
Veterinarian Fred Nizeyimana performs an emergency snare removal from adult female mountain gorilla in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda. Gorilla Doctors<p>Tromping through the gorilla's habitat is not easy work, Stoinksi said. "It's called the Bwindi impenetrable forest for a reason."</p><p>"The census work is a tough job — physically demanding, with 12 hours each day of walking through the forest, crossing big ravines and climbing mountains," Prosper Kaberabose, a Fossey Fund tracker, said in a <a href="https://gorillafund.org/bwindi-census/" target="_blank">statement</a>. But by participating in the training before the survey, as well as the census itself, members of the team picked up valuable and marketable skills, Kaberabose said.</p><p>The fecal samples — about 2,000 of them — were then sent to the Veterinary Genetics Laboratory at the University of California, Davis. Analyses conducted there identified 459 individual gorillas.</p><p>"Given ongoing risks to mountain gorillas such as habitat encroachment, potential disease transmission, poaching and civil unrest, this increase should serve as both a celebration and a clarion call to all government, NGO and institutional partners to continue to collaborate in our work to ensure the survival of mountain gorillas," Kirsten Gilardi, executive director of the Gorilla Doctors and a veterinarian at UC Davis, said in a <a href="https://www.ucdavis.edu/news/mountain-gorilla-numbers-rise" target="_blank">statement</a>.</p>
An infant mountain gorilla standing on its mother's back in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda. Gorilla Doctors / Mongabay<p>The teams also noted signs of other animals, including chimpanzees and elephants. Though these mammal populations weren't the focus of the study, they appear to be holding steady, in contrast to declines elsewhere.</p><p>It may be that the conservation efforts to protect gorillas are also helping to keep other species safe, Stoinski said.</p><p>But despite the success of the "extreme conservation" that's gone into bringing mountain gorillas back from the edge of extinction, Stoinski echoed Gilardi's call for continued action. Mountain gorillas are still "conservation-dependent," she said.</p><p>"The really exciting news is that they're increasing," Stoinski said. "The other side of that is they still face a lot of challenges."</p>
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Environmentalists and creative minds around the world are gearing up for this month's major climate action events.
This weekend, people in 89 countries will mobilize for the Rise for Climate global grassroots movement. It will feature 748 local events and rallies across the globe, as well as the largest-ever West Coast climate march to be held in San Francisco this Saturday.
- Street Art and Augmented Reality Get Real About Climate in Miami ›
- Stunning Photos From New Artists Collective Show a Planet in Crisis ›
Numbers of critically endangered mountain gorillas are on the up, following conservation efforts in the transboundary Virunga Massif, one of the two remaining areas where the great ape is still found.