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Riverkeeper envisions mutually beneficial relationships

Jerry White- Photo from The Fig Tree, September 2020


By Marijke Fakasiieiki

Jerry White Jr, Spokane Riverkeeper, opened a Sept. 19 program, "Rights of Nature, Indigenous and Advocacy Perspectives," with the Gonzaga Center for Climate sharing reflections on the impact of English law.

Spokane Riverkeeper protects the Spokane River and connects the community to it. Its tagline is "It's your river, we protect it!"

"Is it your river?" he asked. "What does that mean?"

Jerry said advocacy is based on English law that presupposes nature is an object. The legal system introduced in colonial North America saw land, rivers and forests as possessions, he said. That system still affects environmental work, because it assumes the river is owned in common.

Users with common ownership are protected under laws like the Clean Water Act of 1972. Polluters, recreationalists, cattle raisers, water purveyors all have their uses designated and protected, Jerry said.

"So, our river legally accepts thousands of gallons of effluent polluted with PFAs and chlorinated chemicals, microplastics and pharmaceuticals," he said. "The river is also legally used to turn turbines for air conditioners, lights and Xboxes. Within legal limits, harm done while exercising common ownership is accepted. Aquatic life falls to the wayside and often is an unvalued afterthought.

"The web of life is harmed, even as citizens, communities, tribes and riverkeepers work to forestall its degradation," he said.  "Protecting the uses replaces values of health and well-being."

Jerry asks questions: "What if our environmental protection was not based solely on early English legal frameworks? What if it was based on mutual respect and reciprocity? What if our relationships with the river, salmon, lands, plants and other communities prioritized mutual health and well-being? What if mutual respect was born out of our mutual interdependence?

"What if, rather than defining our protection, use and interactions in terms of ownership, we interacted with and protected the world because of opportunities for reciprocal partnerships? Might the health and vibrancy of all living systems be the outcome?"

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Copyright@ The Fig Tree, October 2023