Flowing through the heart of New Zealand’s North Island, the Whanganui River is one of the country’s most important natural resources. The river begins its 290km journey on the snowy north-western side of the Mount Tongariro active volcano, winding between green hills and mountains until it meets the Tasman Sea. Revered for centuries by the Whanganui tribes – who take their name, spirit and strength from the river they live near – it became the first river in the world to be recognised as a legal person in 2017, bringing closure to one of New Zealand’s longest-running court cases.
The Maori, the indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand, had been fighting for more than 160 years to get legal protection for the river. The Whanganui tribes have nurtured a deep connection with the waterway for at least 880 years – more than 700 years before European settlers arrived. They have relied on it for much of their food, travelled it by canoe and built villages on its banks.
In Maori culture, tupuna, or “ancestors”, live on in the natural world and it is the community’s duty to protect both the landscape they inherited and those who came before them. Humans and water are especially believed to be intertwined – a traditional saying is, “I am the river, the river is me”. Having the river recognised as a legal person means harming it is the same as harming the tribe. If there is any kind of abuse or threat to its waters, such as pollution or unauthorised activities, the river can sue. It also means it can own property, enter contracts and be sued itself.
Environmental personhood has been studied as a way of protecting nature since at least the 1970s. In his book Should Trees Have Standing?, American law professor Christopher D Stone argued that environmental interests should be recognised apart from human ones. His work influenced Maori academics James Morris and Jacinta Ruru, who wrote Giving Voice to Rivers, making a case for why waterways in New Zealand should be seen as legal people.
The Whanganui River is not the only instance of a natural resource being granted legal personhood in New Zealand. In 2014, the Te Urewera park, the ancestral home of the Tuhoe people, became the first natural feature in the country to be recognised as a legal person. In 2018, Mount Taranaki – a 120,000 year-old stratovolcano sacred to the Maori – was awarded the same status. But the Whanganui River has been perhaps the most influential: following the decision in 2017, the Ganges and Yamuna rivers in India and all rivers in Bangladesh also received legal rights – although, in India, the decision was later revoked.