Defining Rights for Wetlands

By FrontierManipur | Published On 23rd Mar, 2021, 09:13 GMT+0530

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Loktak Lake

In Manipur, during 2018 the Government set up the Manipur State Wetlands Authority (MSWA) in tune with the national Wetlands (Conservation) Rules, 2017, wherein it has been emphasized that all wetlands needed to be restored and conserved in the best possible way to address multiple end benefits, including that of the climate issues and livelihoods of IPLCs.

By Salam Rajesh

Scientists from across the globe working on different aspects of wetlands and their long term conservation have called for wetlands to be given legal rights, similar to fundamental rights given to humans. Scientists from the Society of Wetland Scientists (SWS), Ramsar Culture Network (RCN) and others say that many indigenous peoples in New Zealand, Bangladesh, Brazil and India recognize nature as a living entity, and that a universal recognition would help reduce the destruction of wetlands.

In a recent scientific paper published in the journal Marine & Freshwater Research (2021), RCN member David Pritchard, one of the lead authors of the paper, say it would be an opportunity for improved cross-cultural understanding, respect and collaboration between indigenous peoples and other communities with activities targeted in wetland restoration and conservation.

The collaborative work redefines the rising global concerns on respect of rivers and wetlands in addressing many issues that are pressing and of immediate necessity, such as the concerns on global warming and its several impacts on earth, loss of biodiversity and more importantly, the concerns on water and food security due to changing climatic conditions globally, and the sustainable livelihoods of millions of people who directly depend on water bodies for their living and sustenance – not to speak of the various wildlife that survive in healthy water bodies.

The proposal re-looks into several pressing needs, both scientific and social. Concluding on intensive discussions at the global context, the document outlines the inherent rights of wetlands as: (1) Wetlands have the right to exist; (2) Wetlands have the right to their ecologically determined location in the landscape; (3) Wetlands have the right to natural, connected and sustainable hydrological regimes; (4) Wetlands have the right to ecologically sustainable climatic conditions; (5) Wetlands have the right to have naturally occurring biodiversity, free of introduced or invasive species that disrupt their ecological integrity; (6) Wetlands have the right to integrity of structure, function, evolutionary processes and the ability to fulfill natural ecological roles in the Earth’s processes; (7) Wetlands have the right to be free from pollution and degradation; and (8) Wetlands have the right to regeneration and restoration.

The conclusion is derived from the point of view that wetlands are essential to the healthy functioning of Earth processes, and the provision of essential ecosystem services, including climate regulation at all scales, water supply and water purification, flood storage, drought mitigation and storm damage prevention among others.

It further is acknowledged that wetlands have “significance for the spiritual or sacred inspirations and belief systems of many people worldwide, but particularly for Indigenous peoples and local communities living in close relationship to wetlands, and that wetlands provide opportunities to learn from and about Nature, which supports scientific understanding and innovation, cultural expression and artistic creativity”.

Recognizing that wetlands play a significant role in global climate regulation, the proposal emphasizes that humans and the natural world with all of its biodiversity depend upon the healthy functioning of wetlands and the benefits that they provide.

Recent discussions at the global scale on climate emergencies and the search for solutions to the rising climate disasters, had called for world’s attention on the failing systems to halt the processes of loss and degradation of wetlands of all types around the globe. Scientific and empirical reports have shown that in many parts of the world, water bodies including rivers and wetlands are fast drying up due to factors both climatic and anthropogenic. These had necessitated for coming up fast with strategic action plans for the conservation and management of existing wetlands across continents.

In Manipur, during 2018 the Government set up the Manipur State Wetlands Authority (MSWA) in tune with the national Wetlands (Conservation) Rules, 2017, wherein it has been emphasized that all wetlands needed to be restored and conserved in the best possible way to address multiple end benefits, including that of the climate issues and livelihoods of IPLCs. The Directorate of Environment, which is the nodal agency for MSWA, had since been considering steps to revive and restore few wetlands in the State – both in the uplands and in the Manipur central valley areas.

RCN’s scientist Pritchard opines that “global climate destabilization and biodiversity losses are accelerating and that efforts to reverse these trends are failing,” and whereas, the proposal paper defines that “continued degradation and loss of wetlands threaten the very fabric of the planetary ‘Web of Life’ upon which depend the livelihoods, well-being, community life and spirituality of many people, particularly Indigenous peoples and local communities who live in close relationship with wetlands”.

This definition well reflects the concerns of local fishers of Loktak Lake, Pumlen Pat, Waithou Pat and other surviving wetlands in Manipur where local population are under tremendous pressures from decline in fish and vegetation population, and the accelerating degradation of these water bodies. Reclamation of wetlands for agriculture and other commercial activities are threatening several wetlands with untimely deaths – unless solutions are found post-haste.

The recent paper focuses on the argument that peoples around the world of many cultures and faiths have “recognized for millennia that Nature, or elements of Nature, are sentient living beings with inherent value and rights independent of their value to humans”, and that Indigenous peoples, local communities and non-governmental organizations have been contributing to a global movement to recognize the rights of Nature.

The proposal cites few examples where claims have been made on the issue. It cites the recognition of the entire Colombian Amazon as an ‘entity subject to rights’ by the Colombian Supreme Court; the recognition of the rights and legal and living personhood of the Whanganui River through the ‘Te Awa Tupua Act’ (Whanganui River Claims Settlement Bill) agreed upon by the Māori Iwi and the New Zealand Parliament; and the Ecuador’s first-in-the-world recognition of the rights of Nature in their Constitution.

Based on the cited good examples, the proposal states that “recognizing the enduring rights and the legal and living personhood of all wetlands around the world will enable a paradigm shift in the human–Nature relationship towards greater understanding, reciprocity and respect leading to a more sustainable, harmonious and healthy global environment that supports the well-being of both human and non-human Nature”.

The argument is further reinforced on the viewpoint that recognizing the rights and legal and living personhood of all wetlands and the paradigm shift that this represents will lead to increased capacity to manage wetlands in a manner that contributes to reversing the destabilization of the global climate and biodiversity loss.

It, therefore, is significant that a universal proposal now exist calling for all nations to accept that “wetlands are entities entitled to inherent and enduring rights, which derive from their existence as members of the Earth community and should possess legal standing in courts of law”.

(The writer is associated with IUCN Commission on Environmental, Economic & Social Policy. He can be contacted at salamrajesh@rediffmail.com)

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