9 Indigenous Communities around World Helping to Win Legal Rights of Nature

by Project Censored

In March 2017, the government of New Zealand officially recognized the Whanganui River—which the indigenous Maori consider their ancestor—as a living entity with rights. By protecting the Whanganui against human threats to its health, the New Zealand law established “a critical precedent for acknowledging the Rights of Nature in legal systems around the world,” Kayla DeVault reported for YES! Magazine. As DeVault wrote, from New Zealand and Australia to Canada and the United States, “we are seeing a revival” of communities seeking to protect natural systems and resources on the basis of “non-Western, often indigenous” worldviews that challenge the values of “colonial” governments.

The YES! Magazine story described how, after a legal battle spanning more than one hundred years, the Maori Iwi secured protection for the Whanganui by forcing the government to honor Maori “practices, beliefs, and connection” to the river.

As DeVault wrote, if the Maori were able to bridge “the gap in Western and indigenous paradigms in New Zealand, surely a similar effort to protect the Missouri River could be produced for the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River nations by the American government.”

In the battle over the Dakota Access pipeline, DeVault reported, the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin “amended its constitution to include the Rights of Nature.”

As DeVault noted, if the US government were to recognize the Missouri River’s personhood status, the Dakota Access pipeline would become “a much different battle”: Injuries to the river, including the alteration or curtailment of its free-flowing nature, could result in lawsuits. The risk of future chemical spills could then be sufficient to stop the US Army Corps of Engineers from permitting the pipeline, and any negotiations would require “legitimate consultation and consent from the river’s representatives.”

If more tribes followed the path of the Ho-Chunk Nation in affirming the rights of nature, DeVault concluded, we might finally see “an end to nonconsented infrastructure projects in Indian Country.”

In a detailed article published by the Conversation, Mihnea Tanasescu noted that New Zealand’s law differed from previous rights of nature laws adopted in Ecuador and Bolivia by designating “specific guardians” for the Whanganui River, including leaders of the indigenous communities that fought for its protection and representatives of the British Commonwealth. As Tanasescu pointed out, the identification of specific representatives is important because without that provision “there is no guarantee that the intended community will be the one that ends up speaking for nature”; “ambiguous language” could permit abuse, as has happened in Ecuador, where all of nature was granted standing and anyone can go to court to protect it. In contrast, Tanasescu concluded, “By granting natural entities personhood one by one and assigning them specific guardians, over time New Zealand could drastically change an ossified legal system.” [For previous Project Censored coverage, see Chelsea Davis with Elaine Wellin, “Ecuador’s Constitutional Rights of Nature,” in Censored 2010: The Top 25 Censored Stories of 2008–09.]

A few corporate media outlets have covered the New Zealand case and subsequent decisions in India. However, these reports have not provided the depth of coverage found in the independent press or addressed how legal decisions in other countries might provide models for the United States. For example, in July 2016 the New York Times reported on New Zealand’s 2014 Te Urewera Act, through which the government gave up formal ownership of an 821-square-mile national park to establish the land as a legal entity with “all the rights, powers, duties and liabilities of a legal person.” The Times report foreshadowed the possibility that New Zealand’s third longest river, the Whanganui, might be granted similar, enhanced legal status. Unlike the YES! Magazine report, the Times’s coverage did not address how the New Zealand decisions might apply to the United States, mentioning only in passing that New Zealand’s attorney general “said he had talked the idea over with Canada’s new attorney general.” In March 2017, the Washington Post covered the legal victories by indigenous groups that gave the Whanganui River in New Zealand and the Ganges and Yamuna Rivers in India “the same legal status as humans.” USA Today ran an Associated Press report on the Indian court’s ruling on the Ganges and Yamuna, mentioning the New Zealand decision as precedent.

Kayla DeVault, “What Legal Personhood for U.S. Rivers Would Do,” YES! Magazine, September 12, 2017, http://www.yesmagazine.org/issues/just-transition/corporations-have-legal-personhood-but-rivers-dont-that-could-change-20170912.

Eleanor Ainge Roy, “New Zealand River Granted Same Legal Rights as Human Being,” The Guardian, March 16, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/mar/16/new-zealand-river-granted-same-legal-rights-as-human-being.

Mihnea Tanasescu, “When a River is a Person: From Ecuador to New Zealand, Nature Gets Its Day in Court,” The Conversation, June 19, 2017, https://theconversation.com/when-a-river-is-a-person-from-ecuador-to-new-zealand-nature-gets-its-day-in-court-79278.

Student Researcher: Erik Dylan Robledo (Citrus College)

Faculty Advisor: Andy Lee Roth (Citrus College)