New Zealand's Whanganui River Gains A Legal Voice

In New Zealand, A River Becomes A Legal Person

If corporations are people now, why can’t rivers be?

Under a landmark agreement, signed in New Zealand earlier this summer, the Whanganui River has become a legal entity with a legal voice.

The agreement is the result of over a hundred years of advocacy by the Whanganui iwi, an indigenous community with a long history of reliance on the river and its bountiful natural resources.

The Whanganui, the third longest river in New Zealand, will be recognized as a person under the law “in the same way a company is, which will give it rights and interests,” Christopher Finlayson, a spokesperson for the Minister of Treaty Negotiations, told the New Zealand Herald.

Organizations that work to protect the rights of indigenous communities worldwide are celebrating the agreement as an affirmation of the inextricable relationship between indigenous communities and natural ecosystems.

“The recognition of the personhood of the Whanganui River represents a landmark moment in legal history,” Suzanne Benally, the Executive Director of Cultural Survival, wrote in an email to TakePart. “Nature cannot be seen solely as a resource to be owned, exploited and profited from; it is a living and sustaining force that needs to be honored, respected, and protected by all of us.”

Treehugger points out that this isn’t the first time the natural world has received monumental rights—or a good lawyer.

In 2008, Ecuador became the first nation in the world to recognize the legal rights of its mountains, rivers, and land.

Frustrated by the exploitation of the Amazon and the Andes by multinational mining and oil corporations, delegates in Ecuador turned to the Pennsylvania-based Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund to help rewrite the country’s constitution.

The delegates wanted to provide legal protection for Ecuador’s environment and its resources. The Legal Defense Fund helped them include a “Rights of Nature” framework in their constitution that allows people to sue on behalf of an ecosystem.

In 2011, the new law got its first test. A suit was brought on against the Provincial Government of Loja, on behalf of the Vilcabama River in Ecuador.

The local Loja government had allowed a road that abutted the river to be widened, which forced rocks and debris into the watershed and caused large floods that affected communities living on its banks.

As a result of the “rights of nature” provisions in Ecuador’s constitution, the judge decided in favor of the river. The municipality of Loja was forced to halt the project and rehabilitate the area.

Ecuador’s new constitution has been an inspiration to communities and governments all over the world who want greater protections for their local resources.

“People not only in the U.S. but also in other countries are saying to themselves that something is fundamentally wrong with our environmental legal frameworks,” says Mari Margil, associate director of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund.

“Temperatures are rising, fisheries are disappearing, and forests are being cutt down. We need to move to a different kind of environmental protection. Our current environmental laws are all about how much we can use or exploit nature,” she told TakePart.

Margil’s organization has worked with communities in New Hampshire, Virginia, and Pennsylvania to shift their thinking about how they can preserve and sustain their natural resources. Earlier this year, Margil and her colleagues helped launch the first “rights of nature” organization in Italy.

The Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and other current environmental laws actually legalize environmental harm by regulating how much pollution and degradation to an ecosystem is lawful, Margil says. Under existing law, nature is considered to be property.

The Legal Defense Fund is at the center of a movement that believes climate change and other growing international issues require new ways of thinking. “Ecosystems and natural communities are not merely property that can be owned,” according to the organizaton’s website, “but are entities that have an independent right to flourish.”

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