The river, a legal entity

In November 2016, the Constitutional Court of Colombia decided to grant the Río Atrato personality rights. The judgement was published in May 2017. As part of his doctoral thesis, the geographer Moremi Zeil is investigating the framework conditions, causes and – above all – the consequences of this judgement. 

Moremi Zeil, the young man sitting across from the interviewer, pauses only briefly to consider before speaking eloquently and concisely about his chosen subject, his motivation and his research questions. This is a person who seems very comfortable with the intellectual approach and who, representing a generation, voices criticism of the past and the present, boldly looking ahead to what is yet to come – a future that is becoming increasingly hard to predict. Moremi Zeil’s grandfather was also geoscientist. When we asked him whether he regards his grandfather with a certain amount of envy in view of the precarious times we live in and the difficulty of achieving an academic career, he responded as follows: “As far back as a century ago, Max Weber already stated that science is purely arbitrary. Though we increasingly attempt to measure things, it is not preordained who will be good in the field of science, and who won’t. Even in the past, there has always been the possibility that one might not gain a steady position at a university. The times I live in are far more exciting, and more mobile. At the moment, I don’t feel particularly concerned about the fact that I might have to go somewhere else in three years. The image of life-long learning bound to one place of work is in the process of dissolving, and for me that also bears positive aspects.” The topic Zeil is working on illustrates just how thrilling the present times are for a geographer: In Colombia, a river has been granted the status of a legal entity. Moremi Zeil believes that this indicates that: “The categories of our way of thinking, of our being-placed-in-the-world, and the way in which we experience the world and fill it with life, all of this is in the process of changing fundamentally. Even categories such as object and subject are shifting.” In the next few years, Zeil hopes to analyse what this judgement by the Constitutional Court actually means for the river, for the people, and for the country.

How did the decision to grant this status to the Río Atrato come about? The starting point was a protracted legal battle between the indigenous communities, which are represented by an NGO, and the national state, which failed to take measures against illegal mining operations in the region. The illegal mining caused massive changes in the river’s ecosystem, but also produced fundamental social discord. The lawsuit brought against the state by the NGO was rejected twice, until the constitutional judges travelled to the region and inspected the situation around the Río Atrato in person, before deciding that the state must indeed be held responsible. Following the Ganges (along with its tributary Yamuna) in India, and the Whanganui in New Zealand, the Río Atrato is the third river in the world to be granted the status of a legal entity, in an attempt to enforce its rights. Incidentally, all three judgements were pronounced or published in 2017.

But what does all this really mean for the river? “We can’t be sure yet; and I hope to find some answers in the course of researching my academic thesis. We are familiar with the concept of legal persons taking the shape of states. Universities can also appear in this form. Now, a river has been granted this status. Thus, it has become – one could argue – human, or at least it has become a subject. But the reverse argument is also thinkable here: Humans are never merely human. This somewhat charged relationship is precisely where this decision is situated. How does one get a river to speak? What rights is it endowed with? But at the same time: What are the river’s responsibilities?”, Zeil elaborates. In Colombia, the first measures are being implemented with a degree of urgency. Creating plenty of publicity, the state is blowing up facilities that are part of the illegal mining operations. The NGO does a lot of publicity. Various committees have been convened, including so-called Guardians of the River; these are natural persons who speak for the legal entity. Here, representatives of the indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities and of the state come together, while panels of experts provide advice. An important task to be dealt with promptly is the determination of the current state of the river, in order to be able to conclusively reveal and chart any changes.

Soon, as early as January in fact, Moremi Zeil will travel to the Río Atrato, to see the situation for himself. While there, his daily schedule will include observing and interviewing the people. He intends to make a second research trip in the summer of 2018. Meanwhile, in his daily routine, the research effort mainly consists of reading, thinking and writing. Moremi Zeil is “glad to be a geographer”, as this subject has offered him the opportunity not to have to choose between natural science, social science and the humanities, but to find all of these combined. He grew up in the district of Traunstein, near the Chiemsee, and subsequently studied in Bayreuth and Bonn, followed by a brief excursion outside of the academic world, when he spent some time in Vienna. He was in Vienna when he applied for the position at the AAU: “Many different aspects appealed to me here: I wanted to return to the academic sphere, the working conditions associated with employment here are certainly not bad, and the setting suits me very well.” Geography is in the midst of a radical transition to the epoch of the Anthropocene; according to Zeil, whatever is emerging now, serves as “challenge and confirmation” in equal measure for the discipline of Geography. The classic metier for researchers in his field is the case study; in his case, this is the Río Atrato. However, for the first time since long, he sees a chance today to address the really big geographical ideas and to lay claim to these topics. Zeil expresses some doubt over whether his scientific discipline is likely to succeed. And yet, listening attentively to the carefully considered deliberations of the young scientist, a small spark of hope starts to glimmer.

A few words with … Moremi Zeil

What would you be doing now, if you had not become a scientist?

Hard to say, maybe I’d be standing in a field or at a carpenter’s bench. Or I could be guiding people on mountain tours.

Do your parents understand what it is you are working on?

Sometimes our views diverge, but essentially: yes.

What is the first thing you do when you arrive at the office in the morning?

Take a deep breath, turn the computer on and read e-mails.

Do you have proper holidays? Without thinking about your work?

Yes. I try to do that, and sometimes it works.

What makes you furious?

Selfishness and carelessness.

What calms you down?

Exercise and fresh air.

Who do you regard as the greatest scientist in history, and why?

There are too many to single out one person.

What are you embarrassed about?

Missed appointments and late responses.

What are you afraid of?

A lack of alternatives.

What are you looking forward to?

Colombia and much, much more.