Rights for Cambridge Rivers?

Interview with Susan Buckingham of the Friends of the Cam

Susan Buckingham was herself involved in the formation of the Friends of the Cam which took place in a somewhat unplanned way in November last year.  Cambridge Labour Party’s Environmental Forum (CLEF) decided to invite Feargal Sharkey  to speak on the threat to chalk streams in South East England.  CLEF wanted as large an audience as possible to hear his talk, so approached Federation of Cambridge Residents’ Associations (FECRA), Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), Cambridge Schools’ Eco Council and Cambridge Friends of the Earth to co-host. Feargal Sharkey’s talk generated widespread concern not only about the state of the Cam itself and of the whole system of chalk streams which feed the river. The threats posed to the future of this system by the current scale of residential, commercial and transport development in the City and its surrounding County were clear. And hence the Friends of the Cam (FotC) was born.  

Susan explained that FotC is not a membership organisation but circulates its newsletter to its supporters who are registered to receive it and who support the FotC Charter.  The four organisations that came together for Feargal Sharkey’s talk are all represented on its steering group, as are a couple of ‘awesome’ environmental activists. Following Feargal Sharkey, speakers have included David Rogers, Professor of Ecology at Oxford University and secretary of the No Expressway group campaigning against speculative growth at the Oxford end of the Ox-Cam Arc, Kim Wilkie the river landscape architect and Paul Powlesland the environmental lawyer and founder of Lawyers for Nature. Professor Steve Ormerod, Professor of Ecology at Cardiff University, and Vice President of the RSPN will be talking on how climate change, legacy pollutants & microplastics impact on rivers and river organisms and how to reduce impacts on September 22nd (booking via Eventbrite here).

In Susan’s words, 

We wanted to focus on local rivers as they are iconic for the city, but we have fast realised that the growth we are opposing has a particular impact on the network of chalk streams in South East England, which are incredibly biodiverse due to their unique geology. They are also globally rare habitats, with 85% of all chalk streams worldwide located in S E England.”

Seen in this way the River Cam certainly acts as a means of measurement, indicating by its health or otherwise the extent to which speculative development in Cambridge and surrounding counties is polluting our environment.  The river itself however can also to be regarded as an icon, something to which we can focus upon and relate to, something we can willingly decide to help and serve.

The Friends of the Cam therefore work to put forward fully argued responses to the many planning and other proposals which affect the river and also to correspond with water companies, local government and MPs to voice complaints about breaches of environmental law, protest against pollution and lobby against speculative growth.  In many cases this is technically specialised work and the Friends are fortunate to have among their supporters experienced campaigners, networkers, writers, researchers, engineers, educators and social activists who can contribute the necessary expertise.

The steering group also continues a routine of organising the Friends’ web site, managing publicity for events and maintaining a social media profile.

Susan pointed out that the Friends do not accept any kind of financial support to carry out this work, and felt it important to remain independent so as to avoid the risk of becoming embedded in the growth project, which can happen if a group collaborates too closely with developers.

When I asked if the Friends had had the co-operation they hoped for from water companies and government agencies, Susan was fairly blunt in her reply.  No, she said, they had not had the co-operation they hoped for.  The Friends would only be satisfied when there was an end to sewage overflow direct into rivers, use of agricultural and non-agricultural pesticides, unsustainable abstraction of water from rivers and also a halt to speculative home and office building and disproportionately heavy infrastructure projects such as the Cambridge Metro and guided bus ways. So far they had met with little success on any of these fronts.  

Now that a Labour Mayor of the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority had been elected however, FotC are interested to see whether the new Mayor would be more open to the policies the Friends are putting forward, and to acting decisively on the climate emergency.  We also now have a shared leadership of the County Council, so it may be possible to achieve environmentally positive objectives such as a move from heavily engineered and climate-damaging transport infrastructure to an effective and affordable publicly-owned bus service.

A few days after the interview, at Susan’s suggestion, I attended a Midsummer Day event held on by the Friends of the Cam on Jesus Green.  The proceedings were varied and dramatic, and they clarified for me the kind of relationship with the river to which the Friends have committed themselves. There was poetry performance and open participation in art and music, following which a company of dancers dressed in colours and designs celebrating water slowly processed towards the river itself.  The central point of the ceremony was a solemn Declaration of the Rights of the River Cam, a pledge to serve the river and an address by an environmental lawyer, Paul Powlesland, about its significance. The Rights set out in the Declaration were –

  1. The right to flow and be free from over-abstraction
  2. The right to be free from pollution
  3. The right to perform essential functions of flooding, moving sediment, recharging groundwater and sustaining biodiversity
  4. The right to feed and be fed by sustainable aquifers
  5. The right to native biodiversity
  6. The right to restoration
  7. The right to maintain its connection with other streams and rivers.

As Paul explained, rights at common law can arise – like a right of way – from the way people act in relation to things or other people over a period of time.  

The legal position of the river immediately after the declaration had been read out would be exactly the same as it had been before the declaration.  However, if we from that time acted in the belief and on the basis that those rights existed, our words would not just be empty air but could over time be shaped and consolidated into social and legal reality.

But why talk of rights for the river anyway?  Most people would probably  accept that we have obligations in relation to the river, to allow it to flow freely, not to pollute it, and so on, but this would appear to be based simply on a long-term assessment of the benefit to ourselves.  

A recognition that the river itself has rights, however, takes us into another kind of relationship, something approaching a reciprocal relationship with the river as another being.  There doesn’t, however, seem to be anything new in this.  The Greeks, Romans and ancient peoples all over the world saw rivers as the home of nereids, water sprites and deities of all kinds, worthy of respect.  Our River Severn’s name is just a softened-down version of Sabrina, its Roman tutelary goddess.  

Nearer our own time the poet Spenser wrote, “Sweet Thames, flow softly ‘til I end my song.”  To T S Eliot the Thames was a “Strong brown god.”  To Jerome Kern, at least, and possibly to the men and women who laboured on its banks, the Mississipi was “Ole man river, who don’t say nuthin’, but must know sumpin’”.

In many ways this acknowledgement of the river’s spirit seems to parallel the approach of Kate Raworth, who in her Doughnut Economics relates with approval the observation of Chief Oren Lyons of the Iroquois Onondaga nation, speaking to Berkeley University students about the country’s natural resources.  As Oren Lyons said, “What you call resources, we call our relatives.  If you can think in terms of relationships, you are going to treat them better, aren’t you?  … Get back to the relationship because that is your foundation for survival.”

Mike Lynch


Rights for Cambridge Rivers?
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