Mariska Bouterse 

Master student, Cultural Anthropology Sustainable Citizenship – Utrecht University

Supervisor: Dr. Hayal Akarsu (Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Utrecht University)

In 2008, Ecuador has granted Rights to Nature. However, this has not been enough to protect the environment from human destructive actions. In February 2022, the Constitutional Court has ruled that “El Río Monjas está enfermo” The river is sick and its rights have been violated through heavy pollution. It has for decades been receiving excessive flows of rainwater from the city, and domestic and industrial sewage water is discharged into the river without treatment. The increased flux exceeds the natural level of the river, causing erosion which has deepened the river bed and widened its channel. Houses near the river are affected by these changes, some have collapsed while others are damaged and are at permanent risk. The Judgment states that the ecosystem of the Monjas River is deeply degraded: pollution prevents its life cycles from developing, the increase in flow destroys its channel, and causes its structure to be lost and to fulfill its ecological functions. Different actors are involved both in the contamination process and in the possible recovery processes of the river. There are several uses, and ways of valuing and relating to the river that are at stake and mediated by power relations that should begin to be explored.

The belief that Nature should receive rights has been growing around the globe; being perceived to be a solution to Anthropos’ catastrophic activities, which are negatively affecting all other forms of life on the planet and beyond. However, research on the effects of such legal changes is lacking. This research will focus on how the Rights of Nature framework impacts the lives of the citizens living next to el Río Monjas, Quito, Ecuador. This will be done through ethnographic research within the Anthropology of Water by combining two perspectives: the political ecology and political ontology lenses. Firstly, by investigating how the Rights of Nature, in this case, are perceived and used by the different stakeholders involved, and what these rights do in practice; how is el Río Monjas shaped and used as a subject? And what are the social, political, and economic effects and conflicts of these rights? Secondly, the human-river relations will be explored by looking into how and what the different actors relate to the river by exploring the different cosmologies and ontologies of the actors. Additionally will be researched how relationships between the different actors are shaped through the river.  The third focus will be on the people living close to the river who have to deal with the effects of environmental pollution on a daily basis. Therewith will be explored how this affects their thoughts, beliefs, and actions and shape their hydrosocial lifeworlds. The research will hereby create an overview of how the Rights of Nature in the case of el Río Monjas work, the power relations involved, the different meanings ascribed to the river, and the everyday lived experiences of such rights.