It speaks the language of riffles and babbles, not legal rights and codes, but the Whanganui River, New Zealand’s third largest, has received something no other river in the country – and possibly the world – yet has: a legal voice.
In a framework agreement signed last week between the Crown and the Whanganui River iwi (the local Māori people), the river will be recognized as a person when it comes to the law, much the way a company is.
In one of New Zealand’s longest running court cases, the iwi won for the river the status of an integrated, living whole, Te Awa Tupua, with rights and interests. Two guardians, one appointed by the iwi and the other by the Crown, will protect those interests.
Coming four years after Ecuador’s new constitution granted legal rights to rivers, forests and other natural entities, the New Zealand agreement may give further impetus to the idea that nature has rights that should be legally protected, just as people do.
In most legal systems today rivers have no rights at all. In legal parlance, they lack “standing” – the ability of a party to bring a lawsuit in court based upon their stake in the outcome.
In 1972 legal scholar Christopher D. Stone argued in his famous essay, “Should Trees Have Standing?”, that rivers and trees and other “objects” of nature do have rights, and these should be protected by granting legal standing to guardians of these voiceless entities of nature, much as the rights of children are protected by legal guardians designated for this purpose.
Stone’s argument struck a chord with U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. That same year, Justice Douglas wrote a dissent in the case of Sierra Club v. Morton, in which he argued for the conferral of standing upon natural entities so that legitimate legal claims could be made for their preservation.
The river, Douglas wrote, “is the living symbol of all the life it sustains or nourishes—the fish, aquatic insects, water ouzels, otter, fisher, deer, elk, bear, and all other animals, including man, who are dependent on it or who enjoy it for its sight, its sound, or its life. The river as plaintiff speaks for the ecological unit of life that is part of it.”
As river after river runs dry and as more and more species lose their habitats and homes, the ethical implications of our water decisions beseech us to engage in this conversation.
A legal voice for rivers might sound extreme. But, really, what is more extreme than a river deprived of water?
Note: Christopher Stone‘s essay was originally published as a law review article in 45 S. Cal. L. Rev. 450 (1972).
Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project and lead water expert for National Geographic’s Freshwater Initiative. She is the author of several acclaimed books, including the award-winning Last Oasis, a Pew Scholar in Conservation and the Environment, and one of the “Scientific American 50.”