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” world views that challenge the values of “colonial” governments.
The YES! Magazine story described how, after a legal battle spanning over 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 correct 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 deem that the Missouri River had personhood status, the Dakota Access pipeline would become “a much different battle”: Injuries to the river, including altering or confining its free-flowing nature, could result in lawsuits. The risk of future chemical spills could 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.”
As of September 2017, several independent outlets published stories similar to the YES! Magazine report, but corporate media have failed to directly address the topic. 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’ coverage did not address how the New Zealand decisions might apply to the US, mentioning only in passing that New Zealand’s attorney general “said he had talked the idea over with Canada’s new attorney general.”
Source: 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.
Student Researcher: Erik Dylan Robledo (Citrus College)
Faculty Advisor: Andy Lee Roth (Citrus College)