Brother Ocean, Sister Lake: Why Bodies of Water Deserve Respect and Human Rights
Dr. Kelsey Leonard, an associate professor at the University of Waterloo and member of the Shinnecock Nation, discusses how Indigenous views on the personhood of water can save that water. More and more bodies of water around the world are being granted legal personhood status, which gives them the right to be defended from industrial pollution. Dr. Leonard is fighting to make water justice a priority across government and bridge the gap between Indigenous belief and Western law.
Please note: For seasons 1 and 2, we were known as “Let’s Talk About Water,” so you may hear that title in this episode. Don’t worry, it’s still us!
As a water scientist and protector, Dr. Kelsey Leonard seeks to establish Indigenous traditions of water conservation as the foundation for international water policy-making.
Dr. Kelsey Leonard is an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Environment at the University of Waterloo. She represents the Shinnecock Indian Nation on the Mid-Atlantic Committee on the Ocean, which is charged with protecting America’s ocean ecosystems and coastlines. She also serves as a member of the Great Lakes Water Quality Board of the International Joint Commission. Dr. Leonard has been instrumental in safeguarding the interests of Indigenous Nations for environmental planning, and builds Indigenous science and knowledge into new solutions for water governance and sustainable oceans.
Kelsey Leonard – Kelsey’s Website
We need to find ways to connect to water, to better understand why water is important to us, and not just why we need it to live, but what is that outside of ourself that we value water? What would it mean to be a good water citizen? What is your duty to the water on a daily, monthly, annual basis, in the same way that you have a duty to vote, and that you exercise that duty to vote, and you are very passionate. What is the corollary to that? What does that look like for a water space?
Welcome back to Let’s Talk About Water. This is a podcast about the future of our planet’s water and why you should care. I’m your host, Jay Famiglietti. There’s a lot more to water than just showering, drinking it, splashing around in it, or if you’re up here in the North, playing hockey, curling or skiing. I think myself, like so many other water scholars, that my interest in water was first inspired by the memory of water, and a feeling of contentment when I recalled those memories. When I was growing up in Rhode Island, I loved visiting all the rivers, the ponds, the lakes, and especially the beach. They made me feel peaceful and connected to the environment. I’m not really sure why, it could have been that the sound of a swollen river, or waves crashing on the beach, drowned out everything else. But at some point before I hit my teens, I realized that the waters that I loved were becoming more polluted, more dangerous, and that they were unprotected, who exactly was looking out for water or for the environment?
By the time I got to college, I thought that I could be at least one person that could do that. And with time I ultimately decided to focus on water for my life’s work. My story isn’t unusual; many of my colleagues feel the need to further understand the richness, the importance, and the vulnerability of water. And they work to preserve and protect the waters of the Earth. But today I have the privilege of introducing someone who is working passionately to help everyone, not just to inspire a few academics, but everyone, rebuild that connection to water, to respect and value water for what it truly is.
Our guest posits that, it’s only by reestablishing that connection that we’ll stop abusing Earth’s waters. And to do that, maybe we need to treat them, well, like they’re people. Dr. Kelsey Leonard is an indigenous water policy scholar, a climate scientist, and a water protector. She’s working to establish indigenous traditions of water conservation as the foundation for international water policy, all while working as an assistant professor at the University of Waterloo. She’s a member of the Shinnecock Nation in Eastern Long Island, and she represents the nation as the tribal co-lead on the mid-Atlantic Regional Planning Body of the U.S. National Ocean Council. Together, Kelsey and I are going to talk about changing water policy and legal frameworks, to center indigenous water traditions as the foundation of water policy. Kelsey, welcome to the program.
Aquay! Hello! thank you so much for having me. I’m really happy to be here with you.
So, the areas where both of us spent time growing up are pretty similar. The Shinnecock region’s at the eastern end of Long Island, it’s really just a stone’s throw from Block Island, off the coast of Rhode Island, which I visited a lot as a kid. In my introduction to the program today, I talked about the impact of how living in a water rich region shaped my interest in water. Did you have a similar experience growing up? What was your pathway to making water the center of your life?
Well, I think it’s almost inherent and innate, being a Shinnecock person, where your whole identity is formed around that shoreline and formed around that connection to the sea, and to water, and to being able to protect that shore, and to protect that ecosystem, because it’s so integral to our political, as well as spiritual existence, in that place that we’ve existed for thousands and thousands of years. So, that is more the inherent side.
I also will say that I am a military brat; my father served in the U.S. Air Force for over 30 years. And with that, I was actually born in Hawaii, in Honolulu. And so very early on… this is also a practice common within our nation, within our indigenous culture, is to place babies in water soon after their birth, and the water that they’re connected to. So being under six months of age, I was in the Pacific Ocean, had myself dipped in the Pacific Ocean, and then my father was transferred back to the mainland, and I was dipped into the Atlantic Ocean. So I see myself very much… My whole family has always just called me the ocean water baby. And it’s just always been a part of who I am.
Now, was I six years old and saying, “I’m going to fight for international water rights for the planet?” No, but I think that trajectory, and the legal aspect of my work today, came as a university-aged student, and seeing some of the human rights injustices around our world, in the space of water and environmental injustice.
So, tell us about your concept of water justice.
Yeah. So, water justice is really about thinking through, “What are the social and environmental justice applications to water governance?” So thinking about what are the distributional outcomes of how we make decisions about water, and then also what are the processes that underpin those outcomes in our water decision-making. But for me, I take a little bit more of an alternative route in understanding water justice. So what does that actually look like in practice when you start to peak under the hood of water governance around the world? I think it means examining what does fairness, equity participation, and another pillar that I call relationality, look like in our water decision-making?
So, within the pillar of fairness, under water justice, I asked, “What are the types of harms and benefits related to our water decision-making in the world? Are they equally distributed, or fairly distributed, in terms of how not only humans may experience those harms and benefits, but also our non-human relation.” In the equity pillar I ask, “What are the groups, or ecosystems, that may bear a disproportionate burden of injustice?” So you may be familiar with lots of human communities that bear a disproportionate burden of injustice in the space of water, related to things like Flint, Michigan, and issues of infrastructure, dilapidation and failure of water. But we also then, in another instance of equity, can see that there are ecosystems, and eco-regions, around our world, that bear a disproportionate burden of water injustice, disproportionate levels of contamination, and harm, that are coming to those water bodies.
In the pillar of participation, I look at what types of opportunities exist for meaningful participation in decision-making. Particularly, I’ve looked at that in the sense of how are humans, and different actors, and groups of humans, able to equitably participate in decision-making. But more recently, I’m also looking at the ways in which we position our natural kin relations, non-human relations, to have a decision-making authority over their own ability to exist in the world.
But the last pillar that I’ll mention, of fairness, equity participation, and then relationality, that often isn’t discussed in Western notions of water justice, or environmental justice. Relationality for me, is particularly looking at the ways in which ecosystems, and non-human relations, are accounted for in our restoration practices. How are we building processes that underpin our water governance decision-making that are restorative, that are reciprocal, that allow for us not to just think about how do we center our human needs, but how can we center the needs of ecosystems, and give back for everything that they’re giving to us?
Sounds like, maybe, a little bit expanded notion of the notion of personhood, right? Giving personhood to water bodies, like you’ve talked about so eloquently. So I’m curious about how it’s going, do you see it in practice, or are you trying to get it in practice? You’re trying to get it embedded in water justice movements, and environmental protection?
The answer to that question is a very layered response. So firstly, what I will say is, that the grant of legal personality to nature, or the rights of nature, is not a new concept within indigenous legal systems. Within North America and really, quite honestly, around the world, we have a legally pluralistic system. So there is not one set of laws that determine how decisions about water are made, in a given local geographic context. It usually is quite a few different layered legal systems that are coming into contact with one another. So in that sense, from an indigenous perspective, the grant of legal personhood, and rights of nature, is something that is part of our indigenous legal systems around the world, and has been for thousands of years. So what I am pointing out, is there is a synergy between longstanding indigenous legal system and principles, and the modern rights of nature movement that the rest of the world is seeing an uptick in. And that in that synergy, we can find great opportunities for cooperation, and collaboration, and coordinated action.
And so how does that play out? Well, let’s take the problem scenario right now; we have about 263 transboundary lakes and river basins, across about almost half of the Earth’s surface. And then there are approximately about 300 transboundary aquifers, so groundwater system, but only around two thirds of the world’s transboundary systems do not have a cooperative management framework, for all of the different actors, and human beings, that are living in that transboundary aquifer, or river, or a waterscape.
And so when we think about legal personhood, it really is this sort of injection of synergy across different legal systems, in a legal and pluralistic world, to try and find a path forward where we can come together and say, “We have this massive gap in protection of our transboundary water system, maybe we could use legal personhood to address that gap of lack of coordination and cooperation, for a path forward?” And to say, “We all have an interest in protecting this water, the water has an interest in seeing itself protected, how do we better support that?”
Yeah. It sounds like you’re bringing a rich diversity of tools to the water management problem, and I’m particularly taken by the transboundary aquifer stuff, because that’s actually an area that I work, and just starting getting into governance, and when you look at these transboundary aquifer systems around the world, you’re right, there’s no one there speaking for the water, speaking for the aquifer, protecting it against depletion and overuse. It strikes me that when you bring all the stakeholders together, not only do you need the stakeholders, but you need this diversity of tools, to represent all the different stakeholders looking at it.
And sometimes we see that conflict erupts when stakeholders just prioritize their own self-interest, in coming together for a management of a transboundary system. If you take self-interest out of it, and position the hierarchy of rights within the rights of the water body, and within the rights that that eco-region has, it takes away some of the ties to nationalism, and our ties to self-interest, and to the aspects of coordination that can also cause conflict, and really says, “What’s in the best interest of the water? Maybe we all can come together around that, and take away our self-interests?”
But that sounds like it must be a tough sell in a world that’s steeped in this Western water policy?
It is very much a tough sell, hotly litigated, but I am very hopeful, and I have a lot of optimism, for the many entities that are pushing forward legislation, as well as litigation, around grants of legal personhood in all different parts of the world. Obviously, one of the most renowned cases is the Whanganui River case, out of [inaudible 00:12:54], New Zealand, which has been granted legal personhood to that river system, and has been quite successful in its operationalization. But still very infant in its creation as of 2017, so really only three years of being in full operation. So there’s still a lot to learn from that case and to see where it goes.
There was a grant of legal personhood by the City of Toledo for Lake Erie, which is obviously an international lake, and that is being litigated right now within the Ohio court system, and it’s likely will go up through the appeals courts, to see where that lands. But I just have hope and optimism for the folks that are fighting the good fight, to see this sort of legal landscape of legal personhood, and rights of nature movement, could look like around the world. And we won’t know unless we try, and they are trying, and really giving it the good fight, as I said before.
I want to turn now to your work at the University of Waterloo. So you’ve been a scholar for a long time, but you’ve also recently joined the Faculty of Environment. What are you most excited for in this new role?
Oh, such a wonderful question. I’m excited for the additional platform that the University of Waterloo provides, the Faculty of Environment being an excellent institution for environmental studies and the advancement of environmental science. The potential for collaborations that are present, given the world renowned faculties that are there, and that work in my spaces of water governance, and ocean justice, and thinking through what environmental justice looks like around the world.
I also have a new area of research looking at the impacts of sustainable development goals, and thinking through these 2030, 2050 targets around water governance, climate action and ocean management, from an indigenous perspective, and really being able to be in this new role as a faculty member and as a researcher, and contribute to understanding those development goals from an indigenous perspective, it’s really exciting for me. And under scoring all of that, is the ability to transfer that knowledge to students. What does this current generation of environmental leaders imagine and envision for a sustainable future?
Yeah. I think you have a great opportunity to really influence generations of students. That’s one of the things that I like most when people ask me, “What are you optimistic about?” Because I do all this work looking at global groundwater depletion, and it can be pretty dismal. And I always think about working with my graduate students, and teaching much greater numbers of students, in my case, that I can reach with another research paper. Not that there’s anything wrong with research papers, we have to write them as part of what we do, but in terms of impact in the future, it’s really all about the students.
It was a mouthful talking about the mid-Atlantic regional planning body of the U.S. National Ocean Council. So we definitely need to talk about it. So in addition to doing this research, you represent the Shinnecocks as the tribal co-lead on this planning body, and you were part of the team that won a Peter Benchley Ocean Award in 2017. Can you tell us about the Council, what the work is that you do, and how did you win this award?
Wonderful. Well, thank you for the opportunity to share some of what we’ve been doing for ocean protection. I will say that I’m technically the former tribal co-lead for the mid-Atlantic Regional Planning Body of the U.S. National Ocean Council, because that particular structure of ocean management was disbanded with the incoming Trump administration in 2017, like so many of the environmental processes and policies that we had put in place under the Obama, and Bush, administrations. So it actually was a bipartisan effort.
It was replaced with a process of regional ocean partnerships, which I am still involved with. They are a coordination of state, and the state then have re-embodied the coordination between federal agencies, tribes and states that were present on the planning bodies in these regional ocean partnerships. So my role now is as a steering committee member of the mid- Atlantic Committee on the Ocean. That’s a long way of saying, I’m still doing the exact same thing just with a different title, but still great people, still the same people, still committed to protecting America’s oceans and coasts.
And so that’s what we were awarded the Peter Benchley Ocean Award for, for excellence, and policy solution. We created unprecedented legislation, or ocean legislation, in the U.S. I’m really proud of the work that we did in the mid-Atlantic, because we prioritize tribal sovereignty in the development of that ocean action plan. And we also made sure that there was language that supported international customary law of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, as applied to marine environment. So I think all of that taken together, was one of the reasons that we were selected for what they call, The Ocean Oscar.
Wow, an Oscar, congratulations. But kidding aside, that’s really amazing. So it sounds like this co-management approach that you talked about was really successful. It seems like that would be a model for not just the oceans, we’re talking about water, it could be soils, maybe we could be talking about air pollution, and managing air in air sheds. Are you seeing this happen in other spaces?
Yeah, so I would say my practitioner experience working in oceans, has definitely informed in the best practices and the bright spots that I see, not only in other spaces of environmental governance, but also that I try and replicate in water spaces. I can speak from my positionality as an indigenous leader, and someone that has worked in oceans and waters for quite some time, that we often are not engaged through a series of laws, as well as legislative processes over the years, we’ve been purposely excluded from environmental management processes and regimes. And then only in recent years, have we been sought out to be engaged, mostly in kind of a tokenistic form, for our traditional knowledge, and you can’t have the best available science if you’re not including all scientific traditions of the region in that data collection.
If we could see some type of national piece of legislation, even if all it did was deal with our First Nation’s indigenous national water policy, it would be really great to maybe try and tackle some of these issues. And in particular, give First Nations the ability to engage with the provinces on an equal footing, so that they aren’t having to solely rely on the provincial renegenance of, “Well you’re out of our jurisdiction, so we’re not going to help you.” Or, “Yeah, sure, we’ll do a little bit here or there.” Or, “No, that’s the responsibility of Federal Government.” Indigenous people still exist, we’re still here, we’re sovereigns, we’re in a government nation to nation relationship with Canada, and with the United States, and we should have a seat at the table.
So, I think you hit on something that is really important to bridge the gap between people who only understand the Western approach, versus indigenous peoples who have been around for centuries, and centuries, and millennia, and have intrinsic ways of knowing, which are largely ignored when you get to the table. Why are those intrinsic ways of knowing so important?
Well, it’s both intrinsic ways of knowing, but it’s also an applied science over thousands of years. So we have cumulative and dynamic observational data that we house within our own communities, within knowledge keepers, within certain portions of our community, that can contribute to our scientific endeavors as a global community, and just aren’t really being properly consulted, or meaningfully engaged in a process. So there’s some intrinsic knowledge, but then there’s also this applied science knowledge, that in the case of [inaudible 00:20:51] as you were mentioning before, some of the best practices for salmon habitat restoration, are coming out of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. So, this is an indigenous water institution with scientists and experts, who are bridging indigenous knowledge, and Western science, to mobilize restoration of salmon habitat.
And Western scientists who aren’t really fully engaged with indigenous knowledge systems, are looking to this indigenous water institution to say, “Can we learn from you? You are doing fantastic work, we should have been working with you 30 years ago, and we’re sorry it’s taken us this long.” And I see the same thing here in the Great Lakes with the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission as well. They are doing fantastic science work, again, where it’s relying on indigenous applied science over thousands of years, intrinsic knowledge, traditional knowledge, but then also combining that with Western science, to get to levels of innovation that we’re not seeing when science is siloed in just a Western framework.
Well, if our listeners could take away one thing from our conversation today, what do you want it to be?
What I’ve said to folks is, we need to find ways to connect to water, to better understand why water is important to us, and not just from a why we need it to live, but what is that outside of ourselves that we value water? What is the reason that you value water on this planet? What does water do for others outside of yourself that makes you place value on it? I also instruct folks on how they can think about their connection to water, conditioning and socializing our youth in our educational systems to have a civic duty, to be conscious of their civic duties, to their nationhood, to their nationalities, to vote, to be good citizens, to think about what would it mean to be a good water citizen? What is your duty to the water on a daily, monthly, annual basis, in the same way that you have a duty to vote and that you exercise that duty to vote, and you are very passionate and everybody gets their voting sticker.
What is the corollary to that? What does that look like for a water space, for protection of water, and particularly, how does that inform our responsibility to water, given our current environmental and social pressing concerns related to the climate crisis? I think everyone is going to have to reform, and reframe, their understanding of their own water citizenship in relation to the crisis we’re now experiencing with our climate.
Kelsey. I really, really appreciate it, and I know that our listeners do. We have to think about becoming better water citizens, and that relationship to water, on an everyday basis. So to our listeners, we need to reestablish that connection and really think about what water means in our daily lives. Those are real words of wisdom, Kelsey. Dr. Kelsey Leonard is a legal scholar, a water policy expert, and assistant professor at the University of Waterloo. And she is a water protector. Kelsey is a member of the Shinnecock Nation and her work focuses on indigenous environmental conservation practices for water security. You can learn more about Kelsey and her work at her website, kelseyleonard.com or on Twitter @KelseyTLeonard. Thanks very much, Kelsey. It was a pleasure to have you on.
It’s been really good, thank you for having me.
That’s it for another week of Let’s Talk About Water, which is produced by the Global Institute for Water Security at the University of Saskatchewan, and the Walrus Lab. I’m your host, Jay Famiglietti. Thanks to everyone who helped put the show together, including Mark Ferguson, Laura McFarlan, Amy Hergott, Jesse Witow, Shawn Ahmed, Stacey Dumanski, and our producer, Sean Prpick. And as always, a special thanks to our friend, Linda Lilienfeld.
This is our second to last show of 2020, and I know you won’t want to miss what we have in store for the last episode of the year. So why don’t you make it easy for yourself and set an alert, so you’ll know the moment a new episode drops? Remember, we’re on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Stitcher, and many other quality podcasting platforms. You can also stream us on Facebook and Let’s Talk About Water podcast, or follow us on Twitter @LTAWpodcast. See you next time!