To Protect the Rights of Nature, the Fight against Line 3 Must Continue

People who grow and harvest food know the many ways that nature communicates.

For instance, if you plant corn, but no cobs appear, then you are being told that there’s probably a lack of nitrogen in the soil.  Likewise, when your tomato plants turn yellow and die before they should, you may have a problem with water.

Sure, these conversations are not like the ones with family members across the kitchen table, but they do show how a continuous dialogue takes place between farmers, ranchers, and gatherers, and the land, water, and air that connect us together in the food system.

Such a recognition, in the most basic way, is part of the lawsuit that has been filed by the White Earth Band of Ojibwe against the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to halt the line 3 oil pipeline expansion.

The expansion, which is currently underway and has been the focus of months of protests from Indigenous people and allies, would pump an estimated million barrels of tar sands oil per day out of Alberta, Canada, through northern Minnesota to the Wisconsin city of Superior for processing and export.

What makes the lawsuit particularly worthy of our attention is that not only is the White Earth Band of Ojibwe a plaintiff, but so is Manoomin (otherwise known as wild rice).

This legal move is derived from the rights of nature doctrine, which has been evoked around the world to protect lakes, rivers, and other non-human actors in nature.

In doing so, recognizing wild rice as a plaintiff gives it a legal space with which it can communicate with everyone to make its case.

And what does wild rice tell us?

It reminds us of the many challenges that climate change poses.

For example, wild rice is integral to the Ojibwe’s food system.  It is also part of traditions that predate the Euro-American court system that has allowed the expansion of line 3 to continue.

Wild rice also expresses to us that it needs water to grow, live, and flourish.  That the Ojibwe have filed their lawsuit with wild rice is to remind us that people also need water.

Yet, the Minnesota DNR issued a permit of questionable legality to increase to amount of water needed to construct the pipeline from 500 million gallons to 5 billion.  This move directly threatens the water source for the rice and its human neighbors.

Wild rice has more to tell us.

We are being told yet once again that producing fossil fuels contributes to an energy system that is driving extreme weather patterns.

Droughts, floods, hurricanes are not new.

What has changed is the increase in their frequency, which is connected to the burning of fossil fuels.

Moreover, for the worse, tar sands companies are looking to become ‘net zero’ carbon emitters by 2050.

That may appear good, even a way to rein in certain companies.

Yet, the devil is in the details, so to speak.

Or rather, to say ‘zero net emission’ is tantamount to allowing a company to pollute in one area while promoting environmentally friendly practices in another.

This would allow tar sands companies to continue to extract their product in the most wasteful ways in one area, while at the same time, planting trees in some faraway place.

Such a problem is found in the recently passed Growing Climate Solutions Act, with made its way through the Senate in June.  This legislation, even as it professes to deal with climate change, actually provides agribusiness firms and fossil fuel companiesample leeway to dictate the direction of environmental and agricultural policy.

In this way, wild rice forces us to acknowledge that it grows not all over the world, but only in certain places, one of which is in northern Minnesota.  For this reason, the Ojibwe made wild rice harvesting central to treaties that the nation made with the US government in the nineteenth century.  In these documents, the US agreed to allow the Ojibwe to harvest wild rice on ceded lands.

This is why the expansion of line 3 threatens treaty rights.

Wild rice also has lots to say to President Biden.

In what seemed a stark contrast to former President Trump, Biden was going to seriously deal with climate change.

The President did nix the Keystone pipeline, which would have sent tar sands oil through the southern US for processing and export.

But now what?  End one pipeline to let another one operate?  That doesn’t make sense.

Some may note that line 3 is nearing completion, and so, the fight has been lost.

But the reality is that pipeline accidents are frequent, which even after their construction, spill oil into the environment.

As much has been seen in the Dakota Access pipeline, which is found to have leaks upon completion.

So, the truth is that wild rice has lots to communicate.

Wild rice is trying to tell us that line 3 must come to a halt.  If it’s construction reaches completion, then no oil should pulse through it.  And if it were to turn operational, then no other pipelines should be constructed or renovated.

The point is that not only does wild rice have lots to say, but that nature has rights.  To claim this, is to recognize and respect nature.  The question is if we are ready to acknowledge nature and engage in real communication with it so that we work together for our mutual benefit.

Anthony Pahnke is a Professor of International Relations at San Francisco State University. His research covers development policy and social movements in Latin America. He can be contacted at