New Zealand Grants a River the Rights of Personhood

Written by Stephen Messenger

From the dawn of history, and in cultures throughout the world, humans have been prone to imbue Earth’s life-giving rivers with qualities of life itself — a fitting tribute, no doubt, to the wellsprings upon which our past (and present) civilizations so heavily rely. But while modern thought has come to regard these essential waterways more clinically over the centuries, that might all be changing once again.

Meet the Whanganui. You might call it a river, but in the eyes of the law, it has the standings of a person.

In a landmark case for the Rights of Nature, officials in New Zealand recently granted the Whanganui, the nation’s third-longest river, with legal personhood “in the same way a company is, which will give it rights and interests”. The decision follows a long court battle for the river’s personhood initiated by the Whanganui River iwi, an indigenous community with strong cultural ties to the waterway.

Under the settlement, the river is regarded as a protected entity, under an arrangement in which representatives from both the iwi and the national government will serve as legal custodians towards the Whanganui’s best interests.

“Today’s agreement which recognises the status of the river as Te Awa Tupua (an integrated, living whole) and the inextricable relationship of iwi with the river is a major step towards the resolution of the historical grievances of Whanganui iwi and is important nationally,” says New Zealand’s Minister for Treaty for Waitangi Negotiations, Christopher Finlayson.

“Whanganui Iwi also recognise the value others place on the river and wanted to ensure that all stakeholders and the river community as a whole are actively engaged in developing the long-term future of the river and ensuring its wellbeing,” says Finlayson.

Although this is likely the first time a single river has been granted such a distinction under the law, chances are it’s not the last. In 2008, Ecuador passed similar ruling giving its forests, lakes, and waterways rights on par with humans in order to ensure their protection from harmful practices.

And, while it may seem an odd extension of rights, in many ways it harkens back to a time when mankind’s fate was more readily acknowledged as being intertwined with that of the rivers, lakes, and streams that sustained us — a time in which our purer instincts towards preserving nature needn’t be dictated by legislation.

This post was originally published by TreeHugger.


Related Stories:

Bolivian Law Grants Nature Equal Rights With Humans

Tiny Pacific Nations Open World’s Biggest Marine Parks

Court Favors Indigenous Community in Decade-Long Struggle Against Oil-Drilling in Ecuador


Photo: erickschmit/flickr


Frances Darcy
Frances Darcy3 years ago

If it protects it from "harmful practices"it is good, and maybe it will make people respect nature .

Valentina R.
Valentina R.3 years ago

Sounds good to me.

.4 years ago

I can understand a river or mountain or even a swamp but not now , not ever , a Corporation.

John Hablinski
John Hablinski4 years ago

@Richard Zane, I rather thought I was saying the same thing by indicating the Jesuits and others, some who thought they were doing good have indeed caused horrendous harm. It came to me in the form of a quip apparently one of us failed in our communication skills.

Richard Zane Smith

Yeah John,
I was trying to point out the non sequitur nature of the argument presented.
it may be true Maori were guilty of ritualistic cannibalism, but this doesn't justify conquest or the rape of whole forests, rivers, ecosystems, and human massacres,
any more than Col. Chivingtons justification of slaughtering and butchering of Native American children at the Sand Creek in Colorado, when he said "well...nits make lice."
"they did this bad thing,so therefore we massacre" is a non sequitur argument fallacy.

John Hablinski
John Hablinski4 years ago

@Richard Zane, I’m easily confused. How exactly did we leave the Jesuit munching, was it a good thing or a bad thing? I have to admit to more than a little ambivalence on the subject.

Richard Zane Smith

ah Pahkeha! thanks for the spelling correction. I don't have a Maori grammar book, I 'm only writing phonetically the way I heard the term being used by Maori friends.

yeah its strange, eating a few stray people, to Pahkeha, is somehow considered MUCH worse than napalming civilians with chemicals or bombing a city of thousands with the H bomb or planting minefields that blow off childrens legs and arms. Kind of strange from an indigenous point of view. Some of my ancestors enjoyed roast Jesuit priest. It might not have been as good as pork, though, as i've been told ...Cultural tastes....

Wez H.
Wez H.4 years ago

p.s. it's Pakeha - not Pahkia as the person trying to sound knowledgeable about the history of Aotearoa used..

Wez H.
Wez H.4 years ago

Some interesting comments on this page about indigenous peoples etc I feel that in the interests of fairness it should be pointed out that the Maori wiped out another race who already lived in NZ when they arrived...and apparently ate them...

Richard Zane Smith

yeah, in English "personhood" might sound weird... Three "persons" of the Trinity sounds weird to me too. English catagorizes "he", "she", or "it".The Christian "God" can not respectfully be considered an "IT" which means that "IT" represents something LESS than "He" or "She".Something that is less than He or she CAN be considered subservient, or even less valuable.
In many indigenous paradigms there is only "He" or "She",
there exists no separate category for something "inanimate" or without "being".
So "personhood" (as the Trinity) is a word used as an attempted restoration of a sense of "VALUABLE BEING."
The word itself might be troublesome, but we're at least trying to evolve a sense of honor
and shed the lower "it" status.