By Addison Luck
The rights of nature movement, which involves giving legal personhood status to various environmental and geographic features and incorporating the rights of nature in local law, is a legal movement that is gaining popularity throughout the world. The idea was first introduced to the modern world by the American professor Christopher Stone in his 1972 essay, Should Trees Have Standing? In the last 15 years, the rights of nature movement exploded, and countries such as Ecuador and Bolivia adopted the rights of nature doctrines within their federal constitutions. Furthermore, dozens of municipalities in the United States – Pittsburgh being one of the most notable -have likewise enforced the rights of nature to outlaw practices such as fracking and mining. In Pittsburgh and other places that have incorporated rights of nature, any citizen or government can act as a plaintiff or representative in court on behalf of nature. With the potential to save ecosystems by battling companies who frequently pollute, degrade, and destroy the environment, this new and radical approach to environmental law is featured prominently in New Zealand.
Rather than incorporate a rights of nature doctrine in its constitution New Zealand has taken a more enforceable and direct approach by explicitly granting legal personhood to three environmental features: (1) Te Urewera National Park, (2) the Whanganui River, and (3) Mt. Taranaki. Combining traditional indigenous knowledge of the Maori people who are thought to have landed in New Zealand around the 13th century with the modern legal system, New Zealand became one of the first countries in the world to give a mountain, river, and national park legal personhood status.
The Maori people of New Zealand have faced nearly two hundred years of oppression – resulting in land and population loss – when the British began to colonize New Zealand in the early 19th century. The recent movement to redress some of the injustices the Maori people faced during colonization has sought to incorporate Maori beliefs in to modern New Zealand. As such, traditional knowledge systems that Maori iwis (communities) have revolved around are increasingly being recognized around New Zealand.
One such traditional Maori idea that has gained awareness in New Zealand is the belief that environmental features have living spirits, going so far as to grant genealogical histories (called whakapapa in Maori) that describe the origin of rivers, mountains, trees, and animals. In 2014, the New Zealand Parliament officially adopted the Maori attitude, the attitude of the Tūhoe people specifically, towards environmental features when they recognized Te Urewera National Park as a living being. Te Urewera, beautifully described in the Te Urewera Act 2014 as being “ancient and enduring, a fortress of nature, alive with history; its scenery is abundant with mystery, adventure, and remote beauty.”, was the first environmental feature in New Zealand to gain legal standing. The Act goes on to explain that both the Tūhoe and the Crown agree that Te Urewera has “all the rights, powers, duties, and liabilities of a legal person,” and that the main goal of the Act is to preserve Te Urewera in “its natural state.” The appointment of a board of trustees was to represent Te Urewera and protect its interest. As planned, the board transitioned to six Tūhoe appointed members and three Ministerial appointed members in 2018.
In 2017, the New Zealand Parliament continued the amazing movement to grant legal standing to the environment when it recognized both the Whanganui River and its tributaries, lakes, and streams (this became the world’s first body of water The Act gave the Whanganui River two legal guardians , both had strong links to the Whanganui iwi (Macpherson), and Mount Taranaki is similarly under a joint management scheme between the Crown and the Taranaki iwi.
New Zealand had a significant effect on the growing earth rights movement when the government began to adopt some of the traditional Maori ecological knowledge and attitudes. Five days after the Whanganui River was declared a living entity, the High Court of Uttarakhand declared the Ganges and Yamuna Rivers legal persons (Innovate Bill Protects). Although the Supreme Court of India overruled this decision, the past few years have seen other countries successfully granting rights to nature. Colombia’s Atrato River (Macpherson), portions of the Amazon, and Australia’s Yarra River all are legal persons. Furthermore, a claim was recently filed to grant the Colorado River standing in the United States (Turkewitz). And stateside in the US, with the help of groups such as the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund and the Earth Law Center a host of earth rights movements are growing around the world—giving new hope in environmental protection.
Innovative bill protects Whanganui River with legal personhood. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.parliament.nz/en/get-involved/features/innovative-bill-protects-whanganui-river-with-legal-personhood/
Macpherson, Clavijo Ospina: The Pluralism of River Rights in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Colombia: 25 Water Law, The Journal of Water Law
Turkewitz, J. (2017, September 26). Corporations Have Rights. Why Shouldn’t Rivers? Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/26/us/does-the-colorado-river-have-rights-a-lawsuit-seeks-to-declare-it-a-person.html
About the author:
Addison is an undergraduate student at Yale University who is pursuing a major in History and Environmental Studies. Upon graduating, he hopes to enroll in an environmental law program and become more involved in the rights of nature movement. Addison is currently an Earth Law Associate for the Earth Law Center and hopes to complete a senior thesis on the rights of nature movements around the world and in the USA. As he writes this, he is finishing a semester abroad at the University of Canterbury New Zealand. While abroad, he and his friends– who are also quite interested in the earth rights movement—had the opportunity to spend a week kayaking and canoeing down the Whanganui River.