When it comes to the world’s waters, I’m more of a river person than a lake person. Rivers always seem to me to be on an urgent mission; they go places. They “run” downstream, “charge” over cliffs—creating thunderous waterfalls—and riffle over boulders to manufacture rapids. Lakes, in my opinion, kind of just stay there.
So, just as I would call myself a “river person,” New Zealand has named one of its waterways a “person river.” On March 20, 2017, the nation’s Whanganui River was bestowed with legal personhood, becoming the first river in the world to be recognized as a living entity. This new, legal being was named Te Awa Tupua, “an indivisible and living whole from the mountains to the sea, incorporating the Whanganui River and all of its physical and metaphysical elements.” Te Awa Tupua now holds “the rights, powers, duties and liabilities of a legal person.”
It’s tempting to think that this legislative act is merely ceremonial, just a way to placate indigenous peoples. But it goes deeper than that. It’s hoped that granting the river personhood status and treating it as an indivisible whole as opposed to regarding it from a perspective of ownership and management—the model for the last 100 years—will have far-reaching environmental benefits.
But will such legislative devices prove to have teeth in the courtroom? Will such statutes allow nature to sue humans for the damage they inflict?
The picturesque Whanganui River, New Zealand’s third longest, winds about 180 miles along the west of the North Island. For more than 700 years, the Whanganui tribes cared for and depended on it. It was their awa tupua—their river of sacred power. All Maori tribes regard themselves as a part of the universe, at one with and equal to the mountains, the rivers and the seas.
But when European settlers arrived in the mid-1800s, the tribes’ traditional authority was undermined and finally extinguished by government decree.
Since then, the river has been degraded. Its rapids were dynamited to create easier passages for tourist paddle steamers. Its gravel was extracted for railway ballast and road metal, damaging the river’s bed and harming its fisheries. Its mouth became a drain for a city’s effluent.
Perhaps most damaging of all, its headwaters were diverted into a different catchment as part of a sprawling hydroelectric power plant, depriving the river’s upper reaches of its natural flow. That act was a cultural affront to the Maori, who believe the head is the most sacred part of any being, especially a tupuna, or ancestor.
Elevating the Whanganui River to personhood has precedent in New Zealand. A former national park known as Te Urewera—820 square miles of forests, lakes and rivers—gained the status in 2014. In that year, the area encompassed by Te Urewera ceased to be a government-owned national park and was transformed into freehold, inalienable land owned by itself. And in December 2017, Mount Taranaki, a 120,000-year-old, dormant volcano that last erupted in 1775, was the third geographical feature to be declared a person. Eight local Maori tribes and the government share guardianship of the sacred mountain that the Maori view as a whanau, or family member, located on the west coast of the North Island.
The mountain’s new rank means that if someone abuses or harms it, it is the same legally as harming the local tribe. That is significant, as Mount Taranaki is also thought to be New Zealand’s most frequently climbed mountain.
In legal terms, environmental personhood is a concept which means that certain environmental entities have the status of a legal person, with the same privileges, protections, responsibilities, rights and liabilities. The idea emerged from the belief that nature should be protected as intrinsically valuable, and it is sometimes used as a vehicle for recognizing indigenous peoples’ relationships to natural entities, such as rivers.
New Zealand isn’t the only country that has extended personhood rights to the natural world, however. Ecuador changed its constitution in 2008 to give nature “the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles.” In 2010, Bolivia passed the Law of Mother Earth, giving nature equal rights to humans.
In March 2017, the high court in the northern state of Uttarakhand in India ordered that the Ganges and its main tributary, the Yamuna, which are sacred to Hindus, be assigned the status of legal entities in an effort to combat pollution, especially by the almost 4 billion gallons of untreated sewage and 132 million gallons of industrial waste that enter the rivers daily. The Ganges and Yamuna were to gain “all corresponding rights, duties and liabilities of a living person.” The court cited the example of the New Zealand Whanganui River in its decision.
And, on February 28, 2019, voters in Toledo, Ohio, voted to grant legal standing to Lake Erie.
Sky Father teardrops
Recognizing that the Whanganui River is the “indivisible and living whole” of Maori understanding and not the inanimate, separate components of banks, bed, catchment, tributaries and water that has been the traditional, European-settler approach seems inherently right—and so necessary if we are to resolve humanity’s environmental crises. Many of us want to move toward that way of being and thinking, where humans’ orientation to the natural world is based not on rights but on responsibilities.
It is yet to be determined if nation’s ascribing nature with the legal standing of personhood will promote this type of reasoning. Nevertheless, such legal moves should help to advance conversation and consciousness about our relationship to the nonhuman world and our duty to the planet upon which we all depend.
Maori tribes say that the Whanganui River was born when a teardrop from the eye of the Sky Father fell at the foot of the tallest of the mountains, Ruapehu. Perhaps like the Maori, we all should start believing that we are neither superior nor inferior to our rivers, forests, lakes, mountains and streams—these ancestors; that we are all linked by one, shared, watery fall from the sky to the Earth.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,