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Why a river in New Zealand is being granted ‘legal personhood’

September 7, 2016

The Whanganui River in New Zealand. Image: Evan Goldenberg | Flickr Creative Commons

It’s a common lament to hear from freshwater conservationists: if only our rivers and lakes had better legal protection in response to the many pressures they face. In New Zealand, a new piece of environmental legislation is intended to do just that, by taking the unprecedented step of granting a river the legal rights of a citizen.

Flowing across North Island, the Whanganui River is New Zealand’s third longest river, and supports rich biodiversity. The river is closely woven into local Maori cultures, and regarded as a ‘taonga‘ – a site of special and spiritual importance. Local Maori tribes have long argued that they own the Whanganui River, which has faced pressures from gravel extraction for over a century, and more recently has been threatened by hydroelectric dam proposals.

The Whanganui River legislation, called the Te Awa Tupua bill, is currently moving through parliament. If passed (which appears very likely), the bill would grant the river ‘legal personhood’, that is the right for the Whanganui tribe to speak for the river in the country’s courts, and to file lawsuits on its behalf when environmental protections are not upheld. This approach could be seen as a type of co-management, through which the rights of the river, and its health and diversity, are upheld through shared decision-making involving local Maori tribes.

Speaking to ABC News, University of Otago law professor Jacinta Ruru explains,

It means that these lands or the river have their own authority—they are recognised in law now as having their own presence, their own needs and their own wellbeing They can be represented now as a voice in court. Obviously they’re not speaking for themselves as such but … this is part of the whole agreement between the government and our Maori tribes as to who will then speak on behalf of these important places.

There is a legal precedent in New Zealand for granting civil liberties to landscapes. In 2014, the Te Urewera Act shifted the designation of an area in the Hawkes Bay region of North Island from a national park to a landscape with legal personhood. This shift in designation – which is also scheduled for the Whanganui River – mitigates debates about who ‘owns’ the landscape, by granting it special legal status which both potentially strengthens its environmental protections whilst recognising intrinsic cultural and spiritual values.

Jacinta Rutu outlines the value of this process,

From our perspective as Maori, we believe that we come from the land and that the land has its own personality, its own heartbeat, its own health, its own soul. The government was not willing to give ownership of that national park back to that tribe, so this legal personality concept resonated and is a term that both sides—the government and Maori tribes—can create a solution around: it’s an ancestor that owns itself.

The Te Urewera legislation uses Maori terms to detail how the landscape has both mana – its own authority – and mauri—its own life force. These ideas resonate with the ‘rights of nature’ concept, in which non-human beings and landscapes – rivers, mountains, forests and so on – are argued to warrant legal and ethical entitlements, just as humans do.  Christopher Stone’s 1972 paper ‘Should Trees Have Standing’ (pdf) is a key part of this concept, outlining the many considerations that granting legal rights to natural objects entails.

Shannon Biggs, director of Movement Rights, an American environmental justice organisation, will be part of a delegation of environmental conservationists, lawyers and indigenous people who will visit New Zealand next year to better understand the Te Urewera and Whanganui River legislation. Speaking to Outside Online, Biggs explains,

I think it’s the most revolutionary piece of legislation anywhere in the world. We work with communities passing local laws that recognize something similar—rights of nature—but this goes much further. The potential to radically shift how we protect ecosystems is embedded in what they are doing there.

How could such a concept work in countries without similar indigenous interconnections with – and voices for – the environment? Could a heavily pressured and transboundary European river be granted similar legal personhood?  Perhaps unlikely.

But what these radical pieces of environmental legislation in New Zealand demonstrate is a real willingness to foreground and strengthen the rights of nature – and in the Whanganui case, the rights of a river – into law; a broad spirit that is likely to have global resonances for diverse local landscapes.

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