The Whanganui is the longest navigable river in New Zealand and of special significance to the Māori who settled along it. It’s now also a person.
An act of the New Zealand Parliament declares the river to be Te Awa Tupua, “an indivisible and living whole, comprising the Whanganui River from the mountains to the sea, incorporating all its physical and metaphysical elements.” It then proceeds to develop a legal framework called Te Pā Auroa nā Te Awa Tupua to support the legal person Te Awa Tupua. The main part of this legal framework is Te Pou Tupua, the “human face of Te Awa Tupua.” Te Pou Tupua is a pair of representatives, one nominated by the local iwi, the Māori tribes, which have interests in the Whanganui River, and one nominated by the New Zealand government. The job of this pair of representatives is to speak for the river and to uphold Tupua te Kawa, the “river values.” Tupua te Kawa can own property, and section 41 of the act vests the parts of the river bed currently held by the Crown in the person of Tupua te Kawa.
The idea that some thing other than a human being can be treated legally as a person is nothing new. This is, of course, the source of the much derided but not exactly wrong comment from Mitt Romney during the United States presidential election of 2012. What does seem to be new is the designation of personhood to a natural environment. The Whanganui River settlement has as much to do with protecting the rights and heritage of the Māori as it does with the environmental protection of the river, but Te Pou Tupua is tasked to promote and protect the health and well-being of Te Awa Tupua, so the legal designation has clear environmental consequences. We’ll see if the new legal framework results in changes to the health of the river.
It also remains to be seen if this strategy gets deployed elsewhere in New Zealand and in the rest of the world. It seems to me like the basic legal framework could be made to work in the United States, though it might be politically challenging to implement.
There was a singing of a waiata after the bill was passed: