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Why lakes and rivers should have the same rights as humans

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    Aquay Wunne Kesuk.
    Kelsey Leonard Nooweesuonk.
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    Hello, good day, everyone.
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    I'm from the Shinnecock Nation.
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    Tabutni to the Cahuilla peoples,
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    whose land we gather on today.
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    I was taught that water is alive.
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    It can hear,
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    it holds memories.
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    And so I brought a water vessel
    up with me today,
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    because I want it to hold the memories
    of our conversation today.
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    Who gets legal rights?
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    History has shown us
    some people but not others.
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    In the United States,
    Indigenous peoples like myself
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    were not citizens
    under the law until 1924.
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    My Shinnecock ancestors, pictured here,
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    were not citizens under the law.
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    Then why do we claim to be nations
    governed by the rule of law
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    if some people are protected,
    but not others?
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    Because it remains one
    of the best ways to fight injustice.
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    And, as Indigenous people,
    we know injustice.
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    A dear friend, mentor, water walker,
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    Nokomis, Grandmother
    Josephine Mandamin-ba,
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    she told me of a prophecy
    that comes from her people,
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    the Anishinaabe of the Midewiwin Society.
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    And in that prophecy,
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    she told me that it tells
    of a day that will come
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    where an ounce of water
    costs more than an ounce of gold.
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    When she told me that prophecy,
    I sat for a moment,
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    and I thought about all of the injustices
    we see in our world today,
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    the water crises we see
    in our world today,
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    and I said, "Nokomis, Grandmother,
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    I feel like we are already
    in that time of prophecy."
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    And she looked back at me directly,
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    and she said,
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    "So what are you going to do about it?"
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    That's why I'm here with you today,
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    because I believe
    that one of the many solutions
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    to solving the many water injustices
    we see in our world today
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    is recognizing that water
    is a living relation
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    and granting it the legal
    personhood it deserves.
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    So to do so, we need to transform
    the way in which we value water.
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    We have to start to think
    about how do we connect to water.
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    Usually, someone might ask you,
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    "What is water?"
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    and you would respond
    with "Rain, ocean, lake, river,
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    H20, liquid."
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    You might even understand
    the sacred essentiality of water
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    and say that water is life.
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    But what if I asked you, instead,
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    "Who is water?"
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    In the same way that I might ask you,
    "Who is your grandmother?"
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    "Who is your sister?"
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    That type of orientation
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    fundamentally transforms the way
    in which we think about water,
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    transforms the way
    in which we make decisions
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    about how we might protect water,
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    protect it in the way that you
    would protect your grandmother,
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    your mother, your sister, your aunties.
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    That is the type of transformation
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    that we need if we are going to address
    the many water crises we see
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    in our world today,
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    these harrowing water crises
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    that have streamed
    across our digital devices
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    in countdowns to Day Zero,
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    the point at which municipal
    water supplies are shut off.
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    Places like Cape Town, South Africa,
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    where in 2018,
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    residents were limited
    to two-minute showers
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    and 23 gallons of water
    per day per person,
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    or just this past summer,
    where the mismanagement of water
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    led the streets of Chennai
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    to be lined with thousands
    of plastic water jugs
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    as residents waited hours
    for water tankers
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    to deliver water,
    first by rail, then by truck,
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    to meet their daily needs.
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    Or even here in the United States,
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    one of the most developed
    nations in the world.
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    Today, Flint, Michigan
    still does not have clean water.
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    But you are likely unfamiliar
    with these water crises,
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    such as Neskantaga First Nation
    in Northern Ontario, Canada,
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    where residents have been
    on a boil water advisory since 1995.
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    Or Grassy Narrows First Nation,
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    which for decades has been dealing
    with water contamination
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    from the paper mill industry
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    and where a recent study found
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    that nearly 90 percent
    of the Indigenous population
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    has some form of mercury poisoning,
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    causing severe health complications.
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    Or even among the Navajo Nation.
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    Pictured here is the Animas River
    on an early morning in 2015,
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    prior to the Gold King Mine spill.
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    After the spill leaked millions
    of hazardous mine waste
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    into the river system,
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    this was it later that day.
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    Today, the Navajo Nation
    and the Diné People
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    and the river itself are still
    trying to recover from contamination.
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    Or even right here
    in Palm Springs, California,
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    where the Agua Caliente Band
    of Cahuilla Indians
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    has been fighting for decades
    to protect groundwater from exploitation
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    so that future generations
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    can not only live but thrive
    in their homelands,
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    as they have since time immemorial.
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    You see, a recent study
    by DIGDEEP and the US Water Alliance
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    found that race, in the United States,
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    is the strongest predictor
    of water and sanitation access,
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    and that for us,
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    as Native American people,
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    we are the group most likely
    to have access issues
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    as it comes to water and sanitation.
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    So, as an Indigenous
    legal scholar and scientist,
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    I believe that many
    of these water injustices
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    are the result of the Western
    legal system's failure to recognize
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    the legal personhood of water.
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    And so we must ask ourselves --
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    who is justice for?
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    Humanity alone?
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    We've granted legal personhood
    to corporations.
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    In the US, the Supreme Court
    found in "Citizens United"
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    that a corporation was a person
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    with similar protections
    under the Constitution,
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    such as freedom of speech,
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    and applied similar reasoning
    in "Hobby Lobby,"
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    finding that a corporation
    had the right to freedom of religion
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    in defense against the implementation
    of the Affordable Care Act
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    for its employees.
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    Now, these are controversial cases,
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    and as a Shinnecock woman
    and a legal scholar,
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    they make me question
    the moral compass of the Western world,
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    where you can grant legal
    personhood to a corporation
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    but not nature.
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    You see, legal personhood
    grants us the ability
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    to be visible in a court of law,
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    and to have our voices heard
    as a person protected under the law.
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    And so if you can grant that
    to a corporation,
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    why not the Great Lakes?
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    Why not the Mississippi River?
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    Why not the many waterways
    across our planet
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    that we all depend on to survive?
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    We know we are in a global climate crisis,
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    but globally, our waters
    are also threatened,
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    and we are facing a global water crisis,
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    and if we want to address
    these crises in our lifetime,
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    we need to change.
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    We need to fundamentally transform
    the way in which we value water.
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    And this is not something new
    for us as Indigenous peoples.
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    Our Indigenous legal systems
    have a foundational principle
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    of understanding our nonhuman relations
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    as being living and protected
    under our laws.
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    And even for the Western world,
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    environmental legal theorists
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    have argued for the rights of nature
    since the 1970s.
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    But we need to do better.
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    We need to change.
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    And we need to grant
    legal personhood to water,
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    because it affords the following
    rights and protections.
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    It grants water the right to exist,
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    flourish, and naturally evolve,
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    and most of all,
    it protects the water from us,
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    from human beings that would do it harm,
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    from human-caused climate-change impacts,
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    from pollutants,
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    and from man-made contamination.
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    Moreover, it reverses
    the accepted hierarchy
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    of humanity's domination over nature.
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    As human beings on this planet,
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    we are not superior
    to other beings on this planet.
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    We are not superior to the water itself.
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    We have to learn
    how to be good stewards again.
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    We often imagine that the world
    is filled with infinite water.
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    In fact, it's not.
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    This planet, Ohke, Mother Earth,
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    has very finite freshwater resources.
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    Currently, nearly two billion people
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    live in countries experiencing
    high water stress.
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    It is also estimated that by 2030,
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    up to 700 million people
    could be displaced, worldwide,
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    due to water scarcity.
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    We have to address this crisis.
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    And so it's time for us to change.
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    We have to transform
    the way in which we value water.
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    And we can do that.
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    We can learn to be good stewards again.
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    We can create laws through which
    we grant legal personhood to water.
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    We can start to honor
    the original treaties
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    between Indigenous peoples
    and non-Indigenous peoples
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    for water protection.
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    We can appoint guardians for the water
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    that ensure the water's rights
    are always protected.
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    We can also develop
    water-quality standards
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    that have a holistic approach,
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    that ensure the well-being of the water
    before our human needs.
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    And moreover, we can work to dismantle
    exclusive property ownership over water.
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    And there are amazing successful examples
    of this around the world.
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    The Whanganui River in Aotearoa,
    in New Zealand,
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    and the Ganges River in India
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    were both granted
    legal personhood in 2017.
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    And even this year,
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    the residents of the city of Toledo
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    recognized the legal
    personality of Lake Erie.
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    And right here in California,
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    the Yurok Tribe granted legal personhood
    to the Klamath River.
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    You see, I imagine a world
    where we value water
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    as a living relation,
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    where we work to restore
    our connection to water.
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    As women, we are water carriers.
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    We nurture water
    in our wombs for nine months.
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    It's the first medicine
    that each of us as human beings
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    is exposed to.
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    See, we are all born as human beings
    with a natal connection to water,
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    but somewhere along the way,
    we lost that connection,
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    and we have to work to restore it.
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    Because I imagine a world
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    in which water is healthy
    and ecosystems are thriving.
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    I imagine a world
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    where each of us takes up
    our right of responsibility
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    as water citizens
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    and protects water.
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    So, in the words of Nokomis,
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    what are you going to do about it?
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    What are you going to do for the water?
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    Well, you can call your local politician.
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    You can go to a town meeting.
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    You can advocate for granting
    legal personhood to water.
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    You can be like the residents
    of the city of Toledo
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    and build from the grass roots,
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    and craft your own legislation
    if the politicians won't write it,
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    recognizing legal personality of water.
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    You can learn about the Indigenous lands
    and waters that you now occupy
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    and the Indigenous legal systems
    that still govern them.
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    And most of all, you can connect to water.
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    You can restore that connection.
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    Go to the water closest to your home,
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    and find out why it is threatened.
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    But most of all, if you do anything,
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    I ask that you make a promise to yourself,
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    that each day, you will ask,
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    "What have I done for the water today?"
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    If we are able to fulfill that promise,
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    I believe we can create a bold
    and brilliant world
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    where future generations are able to form
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    the same relationship to water
    that we have been privileged to have,
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    where all communities
    of human and nonhuman relations
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    have water to live,
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    because water is life.
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    Tabutni. Thank you.
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    (Applause)
Title:
Why lakes and rivers should have the same rights as humans
Speaker:
Kelsey Leonard
Description:

Water is essential to life. Yet in the eyes of the law, it remains largely unprotected -- leaving many communities without access to safe drinking water, says legal scholar Kelsey Leonard. In this powerful talk, she shows why granting lakes and rivers legal "personhood" -- giving them the same legal rights as humans -- is the first step to protecting our bodies of water and fundamentally transforming how we value this vital resource.

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Video Language:
English
Team:
TED
Proiect:
TEDTalks
Duration:
13:21

English subtitles

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