Power and politics across species boundaries: Towards multispecies justice in riverine hydrosocial territories

In this guest post, Carlota Houart discusses the research from her recently published article in Environmental Politics, ‘Power and politics across species boundaries: towards Multispecies Justice in Riverine Hydrosocial Territories’ co-authored with Jaime Hoogesteger and Rutgerd Boelens. In this blog, Houart discusses multispecies justice in rivers, the Riverhood project, and the article’s efforts to rethink modes of human and more-than-human relations.

We are currently seeing a growing network of movements and initiatives around the protection, conservation, and restoration of rivers across the globe. This trend comes in response (and resistance) to the increasing encroachment on and destruction of rivers and riverine communities, associated with mining, damming, pollution, diversion, depletion, and the added impacts of the climate crisis. Several of these movements and initiatives are closely linked with the evolving Rights of Rivers paradigm. Falling under the broader umbrella of Rights of Nature, RoR calls for the acknowledgment of rivers’ subjecthood (or legal personhood) and rights.

Civil society frameworks and proposals such as the Universal Declaration on Rights of Rivers, and multiple legal cases around the world, including Aotearoa New Zealand, Colombia, India, Ecuador, the USA, and Canada, are rendering rivers increasingly popular as subjects and communities of justice, and as the protagonists of a growing and very needed critical reflection on human-nonhuman relations. Similarly, a growing body of literature across the social sciences is engaging with these topics of rivers’ legal and political subjecthood, rights, and movements.

Recently, Jaime Hoogesteger, Rutgerd Boelens and I published a research article in Environmental Politics that aims to add to and nurture this critical reflection and debates. The article was written in the context of my doctoral research within the international, transdisciplinary, ERC-funded research project Riverhood: Living Rivers and New Water Justice Movements. This project closely collaborates with social movements, environmental organizations, local and Indigenous communities, artists, activists, and other actors who are mobilizing for the protection of rivers and their multispecies communities around the world.

As part of the Riverhood project, one of our goals is precisely to engage with the Rights of Rivers debate, as well as with developing discussions around multispecies justice, and more-than-human approaches. We seek to build bridges between critical and engaged academia (scholarship from the “nonhuman turn”, multispecies justice, etc.) and social movements, environmental organizations, and local communities striving to defend, conserve, or restore rivers. We are particularly concerned with shedding light on political processes and power relations that can construct but also deconstruct, challenge and question, or strengthen and reify specific political hierarchies and processes. The latter involve and affect both different groups of human subjects (e.g., states, international energy companies, water technocrats, local communities, indigenous peoples, environmental activists) and groups of human and non-human beings.

We acknowledge the importance of recognising rivers, as well as the animal and plant communities who co-constitute and co-inhabit them, as living subjects with specific needs and interests, and encourage such recognition across academic, policy, and society spheres. We also stress the importance of critically scrutinizing the political processes that accompany it, and their potential pitfalls. Key questions such as “Who recognises rivers as living subjects and/or subjects of justice?”, “Who can speak on behalf of rivers and their multispecies communities?”, “Who are we including and excluding when we acknowledge rivers as subjects and/or communities of subjects?”, must always be kept on the frontline of Rights of Rivers and multispecies justice debates (Houart, 2023). A dialogue between the literature on hydrosocial territoriality and the multispecies justice scholarship – which is what we do in our research article – is particularly relevant in this sense.

The conceptualization of rivers as hydrosocial territories invites us to see, understand, and engage with these as politically contested entities that are co-created and constantly (re)shaped by human and other-than-human beings. In other words, rivers as hydrosocial territories are posited as naturecultures (Haraway, 1991) where no easy distinctions between nature-society and subject-object can be made. This encourages us to acknowledge non-human beings such as animals, plants, and rivers themselves as active participants in the material and political processes of (re)territorialization of these riverine worlds.

The multispecies justice scholarship then invites us to recognise these multiple (multispecies) actors as subjects of justice. The material and political processes through which riverine hydrosocial territories are created and transformed are necessarily embedded in and always permeated by power relations and political hierarchies that always involve a multiplicity of beings and that directly impact the lives and futures of both human and other-than-human subjects. As such, when we talk about justice in and around rivers, we are called to include the many and diverse other-than-human beings who are part of them.

What might multispecies justice in rivers look like in practice?

In more practical, concrete terms, we can reflect on the following scenario. In political decision-making processes concerning river management and governance (e.g., dam construction or dam removal projects), non-human beings should be included as stakeholders and participants in these processes alongside humans. At the same time, we must remain aware of the intrinsic challenges and ethical dilemmas associated with their inclusion. For example: if we want to invite non-human beings to metaphorically sit at the decision-making table alongside human actors, do we necessarily require human intermediaries to do so? And if so, who constitutes a legitimate intermediary? How do we contribute to further logics of inclusion and exclusion in doing this? Many more questions arise as we dive deeper into this matter.

Despite the numerous challenges contained within such an endeavour, we wholeheartedly encourage it. As we argue in our article, adopting a multispecies justice lens when discussing issues of river conservation and restoration means to actually, deliberately ally with other-than-human beings in the defence and re-enlivening of riverine territories. This can be done by inviting them into “hydrosocial territorial designs” (e.g., through the protection of existing species; through dam removal projects that acknowledge the agency of fish; through the reintroduction of species like beavers or otters, and collaboration with them to restore river biodiversity and health). In other cases, it can imply nominating human spokespeople to speak on behalf of the more-than-human world when deciding on specific projects. Importantly, these representatives might also form part of groups who have been historically marginalized and silenced by settler-colonial and capitalist states.

Ours is an introductory conversation that invites engagement and critical dialogue by and with diverse others, including readers of Environmental Politics! We are very interested in, for example, looking at what kind of practices and examples of multispecies justice in and around rivers already exist in specific places, contexts, and modes of relationship between human and more-than-human communities.

Furthermore, we are interested in how multispecies justice might contribute to decolonizing specific modes of relationship between groups of humans by, among others, acknowledging marginalised ways of knowing; or embracing intersectionality and building bridges between multispecies justice and social justice movements.

Finally, we are also interested in exploring what kind of “new” practices for multispecies justice in the context of river defence movements might be developed through different means. We think, for example, of artistic and creative performances and methodologies; of citizens assemblies; of intercultural dialogue; of connections between engaged academia and socio-environmental activism on local to global scales; and of weaving together threads of human and more-than-human co-creation.

Bio: Carlota Houart is a PhD researcher within the ERC-funded research project “Riverhood: Living Rivers and New Water Justice Movements”, at Wageningen University, the Netherlands. Carlota’s research focuses on multispecies justice in rivers, and she is working with the Piatúa River in Ecuador and the River Maas in the Netherlands. Carlota’s research interests span multispecies justice and multispecies ethnography, more-than-human political ecology, Rights of Nature, ecofeminism, post-anthropocentric political theory, activist research, and other fields and topics. Carlota is also a member of the Global Alliance for Rights of Nature and has been involved with Extinction Rebellion.

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