In 2017, New Zealand granted legal personhood to the Whanganui River.
Flowing through the heart of New Zealand’s North Island, the Whanganui River is one of the country’s most important natural resources. The river begins its 290km journey on the snowy north-western side of the Mount Tongariro active volcano, winding between green hills and mountains until it meets the Tasman Sea. The river has been revered for centuries by the Whanganui tribes who take their name, spirit and strength from the river they live near.
How was the river recognised as a legal person?
It became the first river in the world to be recognised as a legal person in 2017, following one of New Zealand’s longest-running court cases. The Maori, the indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand, had been fighting for more than 160 years to get legal protection for the river. The tribes have relied on it for much of their food, travelled it by canoe and built villages on its banks.
What does it mean for the river?
Having the river recognised as a legal person means any kind of abuse or threat to its waters, such as pollution or unauthorised activities, the river can sue. In Maori culture, tupuna, or “ancestors”, live on in the natural world and it is the community’s duty to protect both the landscape they inherited and those who came before them. Humans and water are especially believed to be intertwined – a traditional saying is, “I am the river, the river is me”. Having the river recognised as a legal person means harming it is the same as harming the tribe. It also means it can own property, enter contracts and be sued itself.
Is this the only natural resource with this status?
The Whanganui River is not the only instance of a natural resource being granted legal personhood in New Zealand. In 2014, the Te Urewera park, the ancestral home of the Tuhoe people, became the first natural feature in the country to be recognised as a legal person. In 2018, Mount Taranaki – a 120,000 year-old stratovolcano sacred to the Maori – was awarded the same status.
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