In a land where corporations are considered people, it’s a bit of a leap to imagine nature attaining the same status. But as Brendan Kennedy reports for Cultural Survival Quarterly (December 2012), in New Zealand—Aotearoa, as it is known to the indigenous Māori people—the Whanganui River is now a legal person.
“Indigenous peoples around the world often struggle with governments that do not recognize their view of the natural environment,” writes Kennedy. Where the Māori strive to conserve and enhance, non-Māori typically seek to industrialize and maximize profit. Thus, indigenous worldviews often directly conflict with non-indigenous practices of property ownership. Awarding the river personhood status, then, is a significant victory for the Māori.
According to the new agreement, the river will have two guardians—one appointed by the Whanganui Iwi tribe and one by the British Crown—that promote the physical, ecological, spiritual, and cultural rights of the river.
Such an agreement has few precedents, however. While the news brings hope, Kennedy warns of the possibility that the river’s guardians might restrict Whanganui Iwi rights to the river with no room for recourse. Still, he calls the agreement cause for “cautious optimism as Indigenous Peoples continue to fight for the recognition of their views of the natural world.”