“It speaks the language of riffles and babbles, not legal rights and codes, but the Whanganui River, New Zealand’s third largest, has received something no other river in the country – and possibly the world – yet has: a legal voice.
In a framework agreement signed last week between the Crown and the Whanganui River iwi (the local Māori people), the river will be recognized as a person when it comes to the law, much the way a company is.
In one of New Zealand’s longest running court cases, the iwi won for the river the status of an integrated, living whole, Te Awa Tupua, with rights and interests. Two guardians, one appointed by the iwi and the other by the Crown, will protect those interests.
Coming four years after Ecuador’s new constitution granted legal rights to rivers, forests and other natural entities, the New Zealand agreement may give further impetus to the idea that nature has rights that should be legally protected, just as people do.
In most legal systems today rivers have no rights at all. In legal parlance, they lack “standing” – the ability of a party to bring a lawsuit in court based upon their stake in the outcome.
In 1972 legal scholar Christopher D. Stone argued in his famous essay, “Should Trees Have Standing?”, that rivers and trees and other “objects” of nature do have rights, and these should be protected by granting legal standing to guardians of these voiceless entities of nature, much as the rights of children are protected by legal guardians designated for this purpose.”
Read more: National Geographic