The River Ethiope Trust Foundation (RETFON), in partnership with the Earth Law Centre (ELC), has secured rights recognition for the River Ethiope, an inland river flowing across several communities within Delta State, in Nigeria’s south-south geo-political zone.
The development makes River Ethiope the first waterway in Africa to possess legal rights.
According to the promoters of the initiative, the river, as a legal entity possessing rights, will have a broad suite of recognised legal rights that would set it on a path to permanent restoration. It will also have standing to utilise the court system as a plaintiff in search of injunctive relief or damages, as necessary, it was gathered.
Founder of RETFON, Irikefe Dafe, disclosed that the development was informed by the realisation of the fact that the only permanent method to restore the river to health is to give it legal rights that are equivalent to those enjoyed by humans and other entities.
“And considering the immense ecological, religious and cultural significance of the river, it is a prime candidate to be the first river in Africa to have its inherent rights recognised,” he said.
Dafe noted that, in the course of the project, RETFON enjoyed support from community leaders, governmental departments, and national and international actors.
“In particular, the younger generation is deeply inspired to protect the environment in Nigeria,” he said, listing some of the rights to which the River Ethiope is entitled to include: (1) the right to flow, (2) the right to perform essential functions within its ecosystem, (3) the right to be free from pollution, (4) the right to be fed from sustainable aquifers, (5) the right to biodiversity and (6) the right to restoration.
Timothy Collins of the ELC submitted: “These rights are intentionally drafted broadly to give stakeholders and government the opportunity to adapt them to local needs. Under RETFON’s leadership, and considering the wisdom and input of local communities, ELC’s legal experts will provide counsel on how to define and implement the rights of the River Ethiope.
“And in the meanwhile, RETFON’s bilateral efforts will continue to build precedent until a valid argument can be made that the River Ethiope is exercising its legal rights in every capacity, and all that remains is formal recognition.”
The River Ethiope runs from the Umuaja community in the Ukwuani Local Government Area (LGA) and meets the sea at the Sapele LGA. The River flows for approximately 70km through Ukwuani, Ethiope East, Okpe and Sapele LGAs, which combine to for a place of abode to an estimated population of 1.7 million people.
The River is a place of worship for adherents to the traditional Olokun and Igbe religions. It famously originates at the base of a giant cottonwood tree. The area surrounding the source is a specific concern, as human visitation over time is said to have destroyed precious root systems that filter groundwater and prevent erosion. A concentration of vehicular traffic creates high levels of airborne pollutants as well, it was gathered.
“By establishing legal rights for the River Ethiope, we hope to create a replicable model for all – to usher in a new era of living in harmony with the waterways upon which we rely, and reverse the degradation of all Nigerian rivers,” said Collins.