A River in New Zealand Now Has the Legal Rights of a Human

Environmental activism isn’t often successful in court systems because the laws acknowledge the rights of people ahead of the rights of the planet.

However, the tides may finally be starting to change. For the first time ever, a nation’s court has decided to recognize a natural entity as a person, with all of the legal rights and responsibilities that that entails.

That distinction goes to New Zealand’s third longest waterway, the Whanganui River, which shares its name with a local tribe of indigenous Maori people who have fought on behalf of the river. For well over 100 years, the tribe has been engaged in a legal battle to protect the river from other populations that do not care for it in the same way.

The Whanganui River is synonymous with the Whanganui people. Throughout history, they’ve lived beside the river and subsisted on food from it. Spiritually, they view mountains, trees and waterways as being no different than people. “Ko au te awa. Ko te awa ko au” is a famous Maori proverb, which translates to “I am the river. The river is me.”

It’s that deep-rooted belief that finally convinced the New Zealand court system to hand the Whanganuis this legal victory. Because the health of the river is intrinsically linked to the health of the tribe, the court agrees that it should be protected in the same manner as a person.

“We have fought to find an approximation in law so that all others can understand that, from our perspective, treating the river as a living entity is the correct way to approach it, as an indivisible whole, instead of the traditional model for the last 100 years of treating it from a perspective of ownership and management,” said Gerrard Albert, a leader within the Whanganui tribe.

Moving forward, an act of harm against the river will be considered tantamount to an act of harm against the Whanganui people.

In the past, non-indigenous populations have threatened the Whanganui River with pollution. Animal waste from nearby farms frequently wound up in the water, a situation that only got worse when the local government placed a sewage treatment plant by the river prior to 1970. Due to an influx of chemicals and human feces, the river became dangerous to swim in, and most fish populations died out.

Previously, treaties have been established to protect the river from such things, but the court agrees that those treaties have been repeatedly broken. Therefore, it seemed appropriate to make the Whanganuis not just the spiritual guardians of the river, but the legal guardians as well. One Whanganui tribe member and one New Zealand government official will be tasked with representing the river’s interests.

Declaring a river a person may seem bizarre to some, but it can’t possibly be any weirder than governments like the United States that have awarded personhood to corporations. If a company can have legal protections like a human, why shouldn’t a river that directly supports life have the same?

It’ll be interesting to see whether protections like the one in New Zealand catch on in other parts of the world. In the years ahead, courts are going to need to find some justification for protecting our precious resources, so it makes sense to elevate the legal status of nature.

Photo Credit: Duane Wilkins

66 comments

Nellie K Adaba
Nellie K Adaba1 months ago

I heard, great news

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Will R
Will Rogers1 months ago

How long before a government official tries to give it a tax bill?!!

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natasha s
natasha salgado2 months ago

A very pleasant surprise. Animals come to mind as the ones that so desperately need rights comparable to ours.

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Marija M
Marija Mohoric2 months ago

tks again for sharing

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heather g
heather g2 months ago

I wish Canada would follow this trend. In many cases, especially around Canada's Oil Sands and large mines, this is already too late.

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rosario p
rosario p.2 months ago

Being recognized like a " Living Entity "means an essential change of consideration, from object to SUBJECT, legal personality with all rights and obligations under it ". .Although the problems logically are not solved, and this new status does not guarantee in any way its protection, now everything is different .But what is most important is the recognition of the "deep spiritual connection" between the local tribes and their river, an intense and "ancestral" union that translates into a strong instinct of PROTECTION towards him as a WHOLE. It voice will be human and as such subject to the human condition to good and bad, but better have a voice then none. It may be a precedent for animal and environmentalists rights defenders claiming living beings and entities as NON HUMAN SUBJECTS WITH FUNDAMENTAL RIGHTS .

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Carl R
Carl R2 months ago

thanks!!!!

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Patricia H
Patricia Harris2 months ago

ron D, you could be right about that. Just because something is protected, doesn't mean it has the same rights as humans.

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Marija M
Marija Mohoric2 months ago

What a great surprise! Respect to NZ! tks for sharing.

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Leo Custer
Leo Custer2 months ago

Thank you for posting!

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