Contribution by: Helen Lessing (essay) | Anja Hennig, Robert Rient (interview)
Editorial supervision by: Anja Hennig
Meeting the Polish initiative Osoba Odra (Person Oder) and meeting Robert Rient was a moment that brought "water" back into focus. Starting from the Oder River at the border between Poland and Germany, water suddenly became visible everywhere. Childhood questions like, "Where does tap water come from?", "When was the last time I really appreciated the taste of clean and refreshing water?" came back to mind. Water is a necessity of life, albeit one that we tend to forget. We are disconnected from water – when was the last time you felt safe drinking the water from a large river?
Last summer term, two master courses at the European University Viadrina dealt with the topic of water – with a focus on the Oder River. Anja Hennig’s course analysed how Polish-German relations played into Oder politics after the mass die-off of tons of fish in the summer of 2022. In Estela Schindel’s course we took a closer look at how nature can become a legal person, where this is already implemented, and what kind of relationships people and societies have with water. Both courses met on the themes of the Oder, Osoba Odra and Robert Rient, the initiator of this activist group. Furthermore, Anja Hennig talked to Robert Rient on the Culture Train from Berlin to Wrocław about the beginning of his initiative, the March for the Oder and the question of how a river can become a legal person.
Listen to the whole interview (in Polish and German) at the end of this essay.
Who and what is Osoba Odra?
The Polish initiative Osoba Odra gathers an informal group of volunteers, who call themselves the Oder Tribe. Anyone who feels connected to the Oder, who has a history with the river, can become part of the tribe. Osoba Odra reconnects with the history of the people living along the Oder and have always had a deep connection with the river. For them, reconnecting with the river is a starting point for its protection. They demand that the Oder become a legal person with its own rights. The understanding is that if the river has its own rights, it will be possible to take legal action against those who pollute its waters.
In the summer of 2023, a year after the ecological catastrophe, Osoba Odra organised a March for the Oder with the aim of drawing the public's attention to the river. The march started at the source of the river in the Czech Republic and ended at its mouth at the Baltic Sea.
In his conversation with Anja Hennig, Robert Rient, the founder of Osoba Odra, demands that at least one river in Poland be clean and that the Oder come first. As a journalist, author and shaman, Rient drew inspiration from various parts of the world where nature, and rivers in particular, have already become legal subjects. The Whanganui River in New Zealand became a legal entity in 2017 as a way to protect the river on its own terms. The Mar Menor Lagoon in Spain was granted legal personhood in 2022. This is one of the first cases in Europe and EU law that nature is being recognised as a legal person.
Legal personhood is what Robert Rient and Osoba Odra aim for with regards to the Oder. The initiative started a petition in 2022, and together with legal experts, they drafted a law on how the Oder could become a recognised legal subject.
The idea of nature becoming a legal person is not new. In Estela Schindel's course "The Oder as a legal person? On the (legal) subjectivity of rivers and nature", we were surprised to find a text from 1972 by Christopher Stone in which he considered the possibility of nature, in this case trees, having legal rights and becoming a legal person. Given that the legal system is a construct, Stone showed that the understanding of who and what a legal person is has never been fixed, but instead is a concept that evolves and continues to integrate humans and non-human subjects.
From water to waters: Nature as a legal person
In the aforementioned seminars, we approached the Oder River from different disciplinary perspectives. In Estela Schindel’s course, we focused on the legal subjectivity of nature and looked at examples where nature, rivers, or mountains are already recognised as legal persons. In May, we spent a day with the March for the Oder, walking with them from Świecko to Słubice – with many of us walking along the Polish side of the Oder for the first time. Robert Rient joined our seminar for a discussion and walk on the small island Ziegenwerder in Frankfurt (Oder). We explored the theme of water, trying to understand its different layers and the various perspectives on it. Throughout the term we inquired our relationship with water and nature in general. Our view of water diversified immensely during the seminar: almost every week we discovered a new layer of the meaning of water. Water as something stripped of all its layers, rationalised as just H2O. Waters full of spiritual, mystical, religious and cultural interconnections. Water(s) and society being deeply intertwined. Water as a power and even deadly weapon, e.g. at borders [necro-hydrology].
Robert Rient emphasises that the very idea of considering the river a legal person opens up a space in which the relationship between humans and nature can be reassessed and a shift in consciousness can take place. In such a moment of consciousness shift, Osoba Odra aims at reconnecting people with the Oder and raising their awareness for nature.
At the March for the Oder and in our conversation with Robert Rient, we were astonished at the connection between the spiritual and very emotional relationship to the river and the rather secular demand to make the river a legal subject. Integrating nature into a legal system means integrating nature into a human-made system with a focus on economic property rights. One of the most striking cases we discussed in the seminar was the Ausangate mountain in Peru. Ausangate is considered a tirakuna, an earth being – the mountain is a living being and a subject, not just a geological object (De la Cadena 2020: 33). When mining companies wanted to expand their mining operations on Ausangate and extract natural resources from there – regarding it only as a mountain full of resources, not as an earth being –, the people protested against its extractivist expansion and sued the company for failing to comply with nature conservation laws. The protesters were in a quandary: In order to save the earth being they used the argument that Ausangate is a mountain and an important ecosystem worth saving, ie. they had to treat Ausangate as an object, knowing that the legal system would not recognise it as an earth being and would not accept such an argument as valid (De la Cadena 2020: 33). This example shows that legal systems are biased, influenced by colonial history and an understanding of nature and humans as separate entities.
The quest for the rights of nature implies the question of who is supposed to represent nature legally. The legal scholar Andreas Fischer-Lescano points out that representation is the basis of any legal system, since every legal entity is represented by a lawyer within the legal system. So, in theory, nature can become a legal person. But Fischer-Lescano also stresses that legal personhood never covers the whole being, it is always a pruning because laws are not able to cover the complexity of any being – be it human or non-human (Fischer-Lescano 2018: 5).
With this in mind, considering nature a legal person seems to be a piece in the puzzle to protect nature. It is certainly not the fastest way to achieve this goal, but it is a way to make the state and its legal system understand what nature needs in order to be protected. Most importantly, it brings publicity and awareness about nature.
Will it not take too long?
The seminar took place in the summer term of 2023; a period when it was expected that another catastrophe in the Oder would follow and when the work of bulldozers at the river shore became ever more visible and audible. This is a project by the former Polish government to turn the Oder into a functional waterway for commercial shipping traffic even though the Oder is partly a nature conservation. We fear that because of these threats the process of making the river a legal person would take too long. However, our conversation with Robert Rient took place before the Polish parliamentary elections. Now there are positive signs that the protection of the Oder will become politically more relevant in Poland.
Robert Rient emphasised that making the Oder a legal entity, just considering and talking about it has already opened up a space for a change in consciousness, a reflection on the relationship between nature and humans, and for a rapprochement between the two.
At the end of our seminar, we felt that making nature a legal entity was definitely a starting point, a discussion trigger, but perhaps it should not be the only action to protect nature and to rethink our relationship with it. We did notice a change in our relationship with water: dive deep into the waters of the Oder, the difficulties of protecting the river, the stories that surround the Oder, but also be touched by the emotional connection to a river.
For further information on Osoba Odra, listen to Anja Hennig's interview with Robert Rient on the Culture Train from Berlin to Wrocław in the seventh episode of the podcast Talking Interdisciplinary Polish Studies. The interview is in German and Polish.
Talking Interdisciplinary Polish Studies is produced by the Polish Studies Blog at www.pol-int.org.
Conception: Anna Labentz
Production: Anja Hennig & Anna Labentz
Editorial supervision: Anja Hennig
Music: Blanks von Podington Bear © Chad Crouch (FMA)
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