A few weeks back, New Zealand signed a preliminary agreement between the Whanganui River and the Crown that made the river a legal entity, giving it a legal voice. Brendan Puketapu, a member of the Whanganui River Maori Trust, signed on behalf of the river. This landmark decision is the first of its kind since it marks the first time that a river has been given a legal identity in New Zealand.
The New Zealand Herald writes:
A spokesman for the Minister of Treaty Negotiations said Whanganui River will be recognised as a person when it comes to the law – “in the same way a company is, which will give it rights and interests”.
Under the agreement the river is given legal status under the name Te Awa Tupua – two guardians, one from the Crown and one from a Whanganui River iwi, will be given the role of protecting the river.
An agreement between the Crown and local iwi on what the values will be in protecting the river are yet to be decided. A whole river strategy, in collaboration with iwi, local government and commercial and recreational users is still being decided.
This isn’t the first time a government has given nature a legal right. In 2008, Ecuador, frustrated by the exploitation of the Amazon and the Andes, became the first nation to give its mountains, rivers and land a legal voice. The Legal Defense Fund assisted the country in forming a constitution that gave the people the right to sue on behalf of the local environment and ecosystem.
The law in Ecuador was tested in 2011 when a lawsuit, on behalf of the Vilcabama River, was brought against the Provincial Government of Loja for allowing a road that neighbored the river to be widened causing floods and affecting communities that lived on the banks. The judge ruled in favor of the river and the government of Loja was ordered to stop the project and rehabilitate the region.
The example set by Ecuador, and the recent move by New Zealand, raises an interesting question: Can we protect our planet and its ecosystem by giving it its own legal rights and voice? Countries around the world are destroying their natural resources, but perhaps the solution rests in allowing people represent nature and have the right to appeal the government?
The idea seems simple enough, albeit a bit idealistic since ultimately the decision to do right by the environment still rests in our hands. But by providing the environment a legal voice, the benefit is that lawyers and activists can raise awareness and put up a fight against destroying nature.