Giving a voice to the Rhône River with a Citizens’ Assembly

Frédéric Pitaval is Head of Id-eau, a Swiss organisation for the protection and promotion of freshwater. In the continuity of its fight to have the Franco-Swiss Rhône River recognised as a legal entity, the organisation is launching a Citizens’ Assembly with the help of Missions Publiques. Is the law of nature a lever to fight against global warming? How does such a citizens’ assembly fit into a sustainable vision? Frédéric Pitaval explains what he expects from this participatory initiative.

Missions Publiques: From engineer to community activist, your background is unusual…
Frédéric Pitaval.
It is atypical because my diplomas no longer exist: environmental sciences in Saint-Etienne and a degree in oceanography in Marseille. I made my career by training to become an aquaculture engineer. The common thread remains aquatic ecosystems, my passion since I was a child. I then had the opportunity to work in Switzerland to set up a centre for understanding and safeguarding freshwater aquatic environments, and to popularise the notion of sustainable development. At the age of 26, I set up my first consultancy and study office in aquaculture, environment and aqua-technology. It took 17 years for this idea to actually take off! The project was inaugurated, but it was diverted from its original objective and became a ‘simple’ public aquarium on freshwater, but without any desire to become a real research centre. Two months after the opening, I decided to move on. On the other hand, we had met a curious and bold audience that wanted to understand more about this resource. Since entrepreneurship had not worked, we switched tools to create an orgnisation with a major component dedicated to raising awareness.


Missions Publiques: The water problem catalyzes many of society’s problems. How?
Frédéric Pitaval.
Water is at the heart of our societal problems: climate change, mass extinction, pollution, agriculture, health, etc. Water, which we are made of, can be found in all of our societal problems, such as the status of women for example. Water is indeed managed by women in many territories, in Africa or in Asia. According to a 2016 United Nations report, 78% of jobs worldwide are linked to water: agriculture, health, but also services, mobility, energy, etc. Finally, it is an incredible lever for discussion. It is often associated with well-being, and it is indeed its absence that increases death rates. If the number of PPM (1) of CO2 in the atmosphere is rather abstract, water – which can run out or smell bad – is more tangible.

We want to go beyond “small gestures”. They are necessary of course, but let’s stop thinking that these small acts will save the planet. It is not the everyday gestures that make up the system. Domestic use corresponds to about 160 liters of water per day per inhabitant in France and Switzerland. However, our real water footprint amounts to 4,200 litres per day per inhabitant. This corresponds to the use of water for transport, energy, agriculture, electronic appliances, etc. When it comes to freshwater, we have no good news to report in terms of quality and quantity, wherever we are on the planet, including Switzerland, Europe’s so-called “water tower”. We don’t want to make people more anxious than they already are, but we think it is necessary to pull things out from under the carpet and to put forth keys to do things differently.

"It was necessary to co-construct this recognition with the inhabitants of the region surrounding the Rhône River. This is how the Citizens’ Assembly of the Rhône was born, which will bring together 30 French and Swiss citizens.

Frédéric Pitaval

Head of Id-eau

Missions Publiques: How do you carry out this awareness-raising work to “make up a system”?

Frédéric Pitaval. Through events that link entrepreneurs and scientists who meet the general public. Then, by drawing on stories and seeking out artists. We are convinced that this is a relevant vector for planting seeds in people’s heads. There are not enough convinced people to change the situation even though it is urgent. Our mantra is: “to question is to understand. To know is to change.” Of course, when you are addicted to energy consumption, you have to wean yourself off, but there are several stages to achieving this. You don’t go straight from denial to action.


Missions Publiques: You launched the Rhône Appeal (L’Appel du Rhône). How did this mobilisation in favour of recognising the river as a legal entity come about? And why the Rhône?

Frédéric Pitaval. Our organisation is based in Lausanne, on the shores of Lake Geneva and therefore on the Rhône River. When you follow the river, from its glacier to its delta, you come across all the environmental and societal issues from the territories in a very concrete way. We wanted to create an event around the Rhône, but this whole process was disrupted by the pandemic. We took advantage of this to develop the project. The revelation came from Valérie Cabanes’ book “Homo Natura, in harmony with the living” (in French Homo Natura, en harmonie avec le vivant) (2). In the first part, she describes everything that is going wrong, and then she explains her battle: the rights of Nature, and all the actions that have been carried out for years for their recognition throughout the world. It started with Ecuador and Colombia, and since 2017, we have seen a surge of activity in New Zealand, Uganda, Bangladesh, Nepal, the United States and more recently in Canada. These actions are mainly reflected in the recognition of legal entities associated with rivers. In 2020, we therefore initiated a transnational mobilisation of the entire Rhône watershed to request the recognition of a legal personality for the Rhône, from its glacier in Switzerland to its delta in France. A status that will give this essential natural element the means to ensure its integrity and to protect itself against destructive activities. For giving a legal personality means moving from a right to repair to a right to preserve.

Our association found both its backbone and the common horizon of all its struggles. Allowing non-human living entities to defend their own fundamental rights is causing such upheaval by forcing all our human activities to work with Nature and no longer against it that it was obvious to us that it was necessary to co-construct this recognition with the inhabitants of the region surrounding the Rhône River. This is how the Citizens’ Assembly of the Rhône was born, which will bring together 30 French and Swiss citizens.


Missions Publiques: What is the ambition and the place of the Rhône Citizens’ Assembly in this appeal and this mobilisation?

Frédéric Pitaval. The recognition of the legal personality of the Rhône and its ecosystems on the scale of its watershed is to give citizens the possibility of defending their fundamental rights, but it is also a means of preserving the conditions of life on Earth for future generations. The objective of the Citizens’ Assembly of the Rhône is to allow the inhabitants of the watershed, during the 5 working sessions that will take place over the next 18 months, to collectively build concrete proposals on the representation of the voice of the Rhône and its ecosystems and on a methodology for application in the territories.

In parallel with the work of the Rhône’s Assembly, the Rhône’s Appeal will work over the next three years to make people understand the need to change our current French and Swiss laws from a right to repair to a right to preserve. For example, it is most urgent to associate the recognition of Nature’s rights with the 9 planetary limits. At global level, our activities are neither sustainable, nor responsible, nor resilient. The Rhône, whose hydrological regime is strongly influenced by its glacier, will see its flow decrease by 25 to 40% in the short term due to climate change and the disappearance of its glacier between 2060 and 2080, according to the latest studies by the Ecole Polytechnique de Lausanne.

The participatory approach is one step towards achieving this. It is a question of going beyond the theoretical debate and ensuring that the “guardians” of the river are drawn from the population, far from the model we know in France and Switzerland with the water agencies, which are a delegation of the State. What the Citizens’ Climate Convention has shown us is that, in the end, citizens manage to develop proposals that go much further than expected. In this Citizens’ Assembly, we would like to ask the inhabitants about the possibilities of expressing the voice of the Rhône and its ecosystems, how to build it? How can it be constructed? With what kind of supervision, leaving room for sensitive and scientific knowledge? How can it be applied for and by the territories?

Once the work of the Citizens’ Assembly is over, we will propose to the signatories of the Appeal, guardians of the river, to apply it in their territories. We hope that the recognition of the rights of Nature will infuse French and Swiss public opinion.

(1) PPM = parts per million. This is the unit of measurement for calculating the pollution rate. The water footprint measures the volume of water consumed, i.e. water that does not replenish the source from which it was taken, and the volume of water polluted, i.e. water that has not been treated before discharge.
(2) Valérie Cabanes is an international lawyer specialising in human rights and humanitarian law. She co-founded the NGO Notre affaire à Tous in France, which was behind the Affair of the Century.  In 2013, she launched a European citizen’s initiative on the crime of ecocide in France, and in 2015 a global citizen’s movement “End Ecocide on Earth” which advocates for the inclusion of the crime of ecocide in international criminal law. “Homo Natura, en harmonie avec le vivant” was published in 2017 (ed. Buchet/Chastel).
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