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River Defenders Launch Initiative to Secure Rights for the River Ethiope

New York, NY, March 14, 2018 --( Today, Earth Law Center and the River Ethiope Trust Foundation (“RETFON”) launch an initiative to establish legal rights for the River Ethiope in Nigeria. The River Ethiope would be the first waterway in Africa to be recognized as a living entity.

Amongst the rights sought for the River Ethiope are rights to be free from pollution, to restoration, to native biodiversity, and others. The River would also have standing to be heard as a party in a court of law. Finally, one or more guardians would be appointed to enforce its rights.

The River Ethiope is located in the Delta State of Nigeria. It begins in the community of Umuaja, where is emerges from the earth at the base of a giant silk cottonwood tree – a place of worship for adherents to the traditional Olokun and Igbe religions. The river then runs for about 70 kilometers until a confluence in Sapele forms the Benin River (or “Larger Ethiope River”), which empties into the Atlantic. It is believed to be the deepest inland waterway in Africa.

Local communities rely upon the River Ethiope for drinking, bathing, fishing, medicine, agriculture, and many other purposes. It also supports rich biodiversity. Threats to the river include industrial contamination, oil spills, solid waste disposal, and impacts from a growing population and booming tourism industry – particularly at the river’s extraordinary source, which is degraded by overuse.

“It is our sincere desire to achieve permanent sustainability for Nigeria’s rivers,” said Irikefe Dafe, President and Founder of RETFON. “Such a desire, however, can only be realized with the effort and cooperation of everyone. It is for this reason that we are advocating for a joint effort to combat pollution and other river harms, which are peculiar not only to Nigeria but also the world.”

The River Ethiope seeks to joins a growing list of rivers whose rights have already been recognized. In 2017, a treaty between the New Zealand government and Māori tribe of Whanganui recognized the Whanganui River as a “legal person” possessing rights. Just five days later, the Uttarakhand High Court in India recognized the Ganges (or “Ganga”) and Yamuna Rivers and their surrounding ecosystems as rights-bearing entities, although the Supreme Court of India later stayed this decision. Also in 2017, Colombia’s Constitutional Court ruled that the Atrato River possesses inherent rights to “protection, conservation, maintenance, and restoration.”

“Establishing legal rights for rivers and other natural systems is the next great rights-based movement,” said Grant Wilson, Directing Attorney at Earth Law Center. “I believe that the rights of all major rivers will be recognized in the next 20 years, resulting in their permanent restoration.”

Establishing rights for rivers builds from the broader “rights of nature” movement, whose premise is that nature possesses inherent and inalienable rights. Already, Ecuador and Bolivia recognize rights of nature nationally, as do dozens of local governments in North America – including Mexico City and Santa Monica, California. Advocates assert that nature’s status as property fuels its long-standing degradation, and that we must evolve our governance to address this flaw.

“This venture represents the work, determination and cooperation of many individuals, and not only with regards to the River Ethiope, but to all rivers,” added Timothy Collins, an experienced lawyer who leads this initiative at ELC. “Further degradation of our rivers will result in irreversible harm, and when inspiration fails, evolving our laws to permanently protect waterways is the logical next step.”

About Earth Law Center and The River Ethiope Trust Foundation (“RETFON”):

Earth Law Center ( works to transform the law to recognize and protect nature’s inherent rights to exist, thrive and evolve. This includes advancing the inherent rights of rivers through initiatives with local partners to secure rights recognition.

RETFON’s ( mission is to protect River Ethiope and defend the rights of communities that depend on it. RETFON opposes destructive water development projects, and encourages better ways of meeting people’s needs for water, and energy, and protection from destructive floods and coastal erosions. To achieve this mission, RETFON collaborates with local, regional, national and international network of grass-root movements, communities, individuals, social clubs, NGOs and other partners.
Contact Information
Earth Law Center
Grant Wilson
Irikefe Dafe (, +234 803 431 4207) - The River Ethiope Trust Foundation

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