With the massive outpouring of support for the protests at Standing Rock, and the significant defunding of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the issue of preserving our natural resources has recently been front-and-center in the national debate in the United States.
But, while it appears industry has gained the upper hand in the US for the time being — with nature suffering the consequences — a unique method to protect the environment is emerging in several other countries around the world that should give Americans pause for thought: placing mother earth on equal legal footing as humans, with the same “rights and interests.”
Legal Personhood and the Whanganui River
The third-longest river in New Zealand — known as Te Awa Tupua to the indigenous Maori people — the Whanganui flows approximately 321 km from the Hawkes Bay area in the northern region of the country, down to the Tasman Sea. It’s also the first river in the world to be granted the legal status of personhood.
Following a dispute dating back to the 1870s involving the New Zealand government and the iwi — the local Maori tribe, who rely on the Whanganui river — a settlement has been reached that will “give the river the power to represent its own interests and advocate on its own behalf.”
The river will be represented by two spokespersons — one appointed by the iwi, and another by the government.
“I know the initial inclination of some people will say it’s pretty strange to give a natural resource a legal personality,” said Chris Finlayson, the minister who negotiated the treaty. “But it’s no stranger than family trusts, or companies or incorporated societies.”
As part of the settlement, $28 million will be allocated for the rejuvenation of the river and $75 million in financial redress to the iwi involving historical claims.
“Whanganui River iwi have sought to protect the river and have their interests acknowledged by the Crown through the legal system since 1873. They pursued this objective in one of New Zealand’s longest running court cases.
“Today’s agreement which recognizes the status of the river as Te Awa Tupua (an integrated, living whole) and the inextricable relationship of iwi with the river is a major step towards the resolution of the historical grievances of Whanganui iwi and is important nationally,” said Finlayson.