Te Awa Tupua [Whanganui River Claims Settlement] is an indivisible and living whole, comprising the Whanganui River from the mountains to the sea, incorporating all its physical and metaphysical elements.
Te Awa Tupua [Whanganui River Claims Settlement] is a spiritual and physical entity that supports and sustains both the life and natural resources within the Whanganui River and the health and well-being of the iwi, hapū, [Māori tribes] and other communities of the River.
Te Awa Tupua [Whanganui River Claims Settlement] is a singular entity comprised of many elements and communities, working collaboratively for the common purpose of the health and well-being of Te Awa Tupua.
The iwi and hapū [Māori tribes] of the Whanganui River have an inalienable connection with, and responsibility to, Te Awa Tupua and its health and well-being.
— Te Awa Tupua [Whanganui River Claims Settlement] Act 2017
With these words, something remarkable happened. New Zealand was the first country to enshrine into law that a river is a living being. On March 20, 2017, Parliament passed legislation declaring that Te Awa Tupua — or Whanganui river — is an indivisible, living whole, and henceforth possesses “all the rights, powers, duties, and liabilities” of a legal person. Not long after, 820 square miles of forests, lakes, and rivers—a former national park known as Te Urewera—also gained legal personhood based on this precedent. Then came the mountain named Taranaki who became the third geographical location to become a person.
So is a river, mountain or a rainforest really a living entity and entitled to a set of legal rights?
According to the Māori tribes of Whanganui, New Zealand, certain forests, rivers and mountains are considered ancestors and Whānau, or family members. And just as New Zealand was the first country to give women the vote, it’s also the first country to grant personhood to the land and bodies of water.
“We have fought to find an approximation in law so that all others can understand that from our perspective treating the river as a living entity is the correct way to approach it, as in indivisible whole, instead of the traditional model for the last 100 years of treating it from a perspective of ownership and management” said Gerrard Albert, who led the negotiations for the Whanganui iwi [tribe].
This acknowledgement of indigenous people’s relationship to nature means if someone harms their sacred land, it is legally the same as harming the tribe.
I can’t help but wonder: in the face of our ecological crisis, is this a model that should be adopted elsewhere?
It’s starting to happen.
Four days after New Zealand granted legal status to the Whanganui River, the high court in India’s northern Uttarakhand state said the Ganges and its longest tributary, the Yamuna will have personhood, which includes protections against its mistreatment and being parties to disputes.
Apparently, the Indian court looked to the example of the Whanganui in New Zealand as a case study for these two rivers held sacred by millions of Hindus.
Then, astoundingly, earlier this year on March 4th 2019, voters in Toledo, Ohio passed the Lake Erie Bill of Rights, granting the body of water the same rights as a U.S. citizen. This measure was taken to the ballot box after the Toledo water crisis, where the cities residents were advised to stop drinking tap water for three days after chemical fertilizer runoff triggered toxic algae blooms in the lake and polluted the water source for 12 million people.
According to The Hill, the Lake Erie Bill of Rights aims to prevent similar incidents from happening again by allowing Toledo citizens to sue government or business entities on behalf of the water source. And according to the legislation, the Lake Erie ecosystem has the legal right “to exist, flourish and naturally evolve” without being harmed by human activity.
Supporters of the measure say the law is the first of its kind in the U.S. and will guarantee the body of water protection from significant environmental harm.
These ideas have begun to take root with the Rights of Nature Movement spreading across the globe to other countries including Bolivia and El Salvador where courts and lawmakers have also granted ecosystems legal standing. Leading the way for this movement was Ecuador — the first country to recognize the right for nature to “exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles”, along with the people having the legal authority to enforce these rights on its behalf and the ecosystem itself being named the defendant.
This is really exciting news! But the question becomes, will these measures hold up in a courtroom? Will nature be able to sue humans for the damage they inflict?
In the case of Lake Erie, so far, the answer is no.
In May earlier this year, just two months after the ballot measure was passed, a federal judge in Ohio said that he would not allow Lake Erie to participate in a lawsuit filed by the Ohio Chamber of Commerce to challenge a law Toledo residents passed to protect the lake’s ecosystem.
According to The Intercept, business advocates — primarily the fossil fuel giant BP, which has fracking interests in the state — spent more than $300,000 to campaign against the Lake Erie Bill of Rights prior to its passage in Toledo.
In another case of courts ruling in the favor of corporate interests over democracy, U.S. District Judge Jack Zouhary wrote that the request to let the lake’s ecosystem into a federal lawsuit was “unusual” and “meritless.”
So while corporations in the United States are granted personhood, I can’t help but wonder: Why can’t the Earth?
In 1972 the law professor Christopher Stone published a groundbreaking article, Should Trees Have Standing? He explored the possibility of recognizing the legal rights of nature and compared how women and slaves did not originally have rights under the law. He suggested that just as they eventually had to attain rights for society to be just, so should trees and other nonhuman living beings.
And in the wake of burning rainforests, collapsing glaciers, and decapitated mountains, I believe it’s time we enter a new paradigm shift that places nature over profits and grants it the right to exist.