A few months ago, the New Zealand Government took an amazing step – prodded by indigenous peoples – to legally recognize the rights of a river. A new law, the Te Awa Tupua Act, recognizes that the Whanganui River (known to the iwi and hapū people as Te Awa Tupua) is “an indivisible and living whole, …from the mountains to the sea, incorporating all its physical and metaphysical elements.”
The metaphysical reality that the law recognizes is one that remains quite alien to the western mind: “I am the river, and the river is me.” That's how the Iwi express their relationship to the Whanganui; the two are indivisible, an utterly organic whole. The river is not a mere “resource” to be managed.
The idea of conferring of a “legal personality” on a river and explicitly guaranteeing its “health and well-being” is a major departure for Western law, needless to say. We westerners have no legal categories for recognizing the intrinsic nature of nonhuman living systems and how we relate to them ontologically. As if to underscore this fact, the practical legal challenges of defining and enforcing the rights of the Whanganui are far from resolved, notwithstanding the creation of a new legal framework.
Still, the law is an important start. It settles the historical claims on the river made by indigenous peoples, and it makes nineteen remarkable “acknowledgements” of the Crown’s behavior over the past century. The law even recognizes the “inalienable connection” of the iwi and hapū to the river, and tenders an official apology.
This latest episode in granting rights to nature is nicely summarized in a piece in The Guardian by Ashish Kothari and Shristee Bajpai of the Kalpavriksh Environmental Action Group in India, and Mari Margi of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund in the US.