Since 2017, the Whanganui river in New Zealand "has all the rights, powers, duties, and liabilities of a legal person."
When it comes to pollution, bodies of water like rivers and oceans are especially vulnerable. Basically everything we buy, eat, and use produces waste that sooner or later ends up in the water, filling up the stomachs of hungry fish and accumulating in huge clusters already being called “plastic islands.” This phenomenon is only one of many endangering marine ecosystems, like global warming and deforestation, all of them the result of human action.
However, despite the gravity of this situation and the fact that all life on the planet depends on water, most of us don’t take direct action to help solve this problem. When we hear about it or are reminded of it, we feel sad for a few moments and then go on with our lives, focusing our energy on more personal and immediate problems, wrongly thinking that whatever happens “to nature” is not a personal and immediate problem.
One of the reasons for this general lack of concern is that most of us (4.1 billion of us to be exact) live in urban areas: manmade, artificial settings where our every need and want is satisfied without us having to think about (much less see) the effect that our urban lifestyles have on nature. We know that nature is somewhere out there and that we are harming it, but we don’t care about it in the same way that we care about our homes, our family, or ourselves.
"I am the river, the river is me."
But what if we saw nature, a river, for example, as a living being? More precisely, what if we thought of it as a person? That is how the Whanganui people of New Zealand see the Whanganui river, a major body of water located on the North Island. They say “I am the river, the river is me,” meaning that, both on a personal and a collective level, their identity is completely interwoven with the river’s. As Kennedy Warne writes for National Geographic: “They see the living world as an extended relationship network, in which humans are neither superior nor inferior to any other life form. All are linked by shared descent from Earth and sky.”
The river that is a legal person
Up until recently, the Whanganui’s conception of the river was only a cultural tenet, but everything changed in March 2017, when after more than 130 years of legal battles, the tribal collective managed to turn their belief into an actual law: the Te Awa Tupua recognition (Whanganui River Claims Settlement). The law recognizes Te Awa Tupua as “an indivisible and living whole, comprising the Whanganui River from the mountains to the sea, incorporating all its physical and metaphysical elements.” It also establishes that it “is a legal person and has all the rights, powers, duties, and liabilities of a legal person.”
With this legislation, the Whanganui river became the first body of water in the world to be named a legal person, but it’s actually the second natural resource to be given this status. In 2014, Te Urewera, a former national park also in New Zealand’s North Island, became the world’s first natural resource to be named a legal person, putting New Zealand at the forefront of this new arena in the global efforts to protect the environment.
A way of protecting the river
As a legal person and “an indivisible and living whole,” the river is “no longer property of New Zealand; the river now owns itself.” This recognition serves to highlight the importance of protecting the river and its surrounding natural elements, by implementing measures that curb the damage currently being inflicted upon it by irresponsible companies and a government that turns a blind eye on them.
The Whanganui's wisdom
On one hand, the Te Awa Tupua legislation seeks to protect the river from this point forward, ensuring that future generations of Whanganui get to experience it and relate to it as is their tribe’s tradition. On the other hand, this legislation also strives to undo the damage of about two centuries of anthropocentric management inflicted upon the river by European settlers and later their descendants. In other words, by embracing a more holistic and sustainable conception of the river (as “an indivisible and living whole”), New Zealand’s government is now moving toward the way the Whanganui has always thought of the river.
Hopefully, the rest of the world will follow in the Whanganui’s footsteps and start taking measures to protect our natural resources and ecosystems before they are lost forever. Those of us who live in cities away from rivers and forests might not always remember just how important they are, but being more aware of the need to protect them is key to moving forward. For this reason, laws like Te Awa Tupua are more necessary than ever.