A River Was Just Granted the Same Legal Rights as a Human Being

Could treating the environment like a person be the best way to protect it?

3. 22. 17 by Abby Norman
Janet Teasche/Getty

In a world-first, New Zealand’s third largest river has just been granted the same legal rights as a human being.

The new legislation essentially combines Western legal precedent with Maori mysticism. According to the Maori —a tribe of the Whanganui in the North Island who has been fighting to assert their rights over the river since the 1870s —their efforts to protect the river stems from the deep spiritual connection of the tribe to nature.

“The approach of granting legal personality to a river is unique […][It] will have its own legal identity with all the corresponding rights, duties and liabilities of a legal person,” says Attorney-General Chris Finlayson.


I Am the River and the River is Me

Given the river’s new status, this basically means that should someone abuse or harm the river, it will by law be recognized as an attack against the tribe.

“The reason we have taken this approach is because we consider the river an ancestor and always have. 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 in indivisible whole, instead of the traditional model for the last 100 years of treating it from a perspective of ownership and management,” Gerrard Albert, the lead negotiator for the Whanganui iwi tribe, told The Guardian.

This new approach to protecting the environment could ultimately serve as a precedent for those attempting to protect and preserve nature in this era of climate change, where pollution and other abuses are steadily contributing to its deterioration.

The tribe also received an NZ$ 80 million ($56 million USD) settlement following the legal battle, which will go towards improving the river’s health.


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