It’s a first in modern legal history: A river in New Zealand has been recognized as a legal person having certain rights and interests. Under a preliminary agreement between the government and a Maori nation, the Whanganui River will become a legal entity and have a legal voice.
The river will be recognized as a person when it comes to the law, “in the same way a company is, which will give it rights and interests,” according to Christopher Finlayson, the Minister of Treaty Negotiations. He said:
“Whanganui River iwi (people) have sought to protect the river and have their interests acknowledged by the Crown through the legal system … Today’s agreement recognizes the status of the river as Te Awa Tupua (an integrated, living whole).”
The Whanganui River iwi are an indigenous community with strong cultural ties to the waterway. They have long sought protection for the river, and the decision follows a long court battle for the river’s personhood.
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.
The agreement includes the following:
The settlement will provide for the recognition of Te Awa Tupua as a legal entity. The creation of a legal personality for the River is intended to reflect the Whanganui Iwi view that the River is a living entity in its own right and is incapable of being “owned” in an absolute sense; and enable the River to have legal standing in its own right.
Consistent with the creation of a legal personality for Te Awa Tupua, the settlement will provide for: those parts of the bed of the Whanganui River that are currently owned by the Crown to be held in the name of Te Awa Tupua; the appointment of Te Pou Tupua (as Guardian) to represent the interests and act on behalf and in the name of Te Awa Tupua; the purposes, powers and functions of Te Pou Tupua; and funds and property to be held in the name of Te Awa Tupua and administered by Te Pou Tupua.
The recognition of Te Awa Tupua as a legal entity does not, in itself, create any legal ownership in the Whanganui River or its waters.
While certain inanimate entities like corporations and ships are considered legal persons under the law, living beings other than humans are not recognized in most countries as being persons with the capacity for appropriate legal rights. Ecuador passed a similar law in 2008 giving its forests and waters rights that protect them from exploitation.
And Bolivia continues to press for a Law of Mother Earth that would recognize that all living things have certain legal rights, and that the natural world has equal status to human beings.