New Zealand

Michelle Bender

Michelle Bender

Recently, New Zealand granted legal personhood to the Te Urewera National Park and Whanganui River and its tributaries.

In 2013, the Tūhoe people and the New Zealand government agreed upon the Te Uewera Act, giving the Te Urewera National Park “all the rights, powers, duties, and liabilities of a legal person.” A Board was then established to serve as “guardians” of Te Urewera and to protect its interests. The stated purpose of the Act was to protect Te Urewera “for its intrinsic worth,” including its biodiversity and indigenous ecological systems.

As a result, the government gave up ownership of Te Urewera, and all decisions must serve the interests of and preserve the relationship of the Te Urewera and the Tuhoe people. From a legal standpoint, this legislation is monumental. There is no longer a requirement to demonstrate personal injury in order to protect the land; lawsuits “can be brought on behalf of the land itself.”

Similarly, the Maori people have successfully pursued similar results for the Whanganui River and its tributaries, under the Maori worldview “I am the River and the River is me.” Under the Tutohu Whakatupua Treaty Agreement, the river is given legal status under the name Te Awa Tupua . Te Awa Tupua is recognized as “an indivisible and living whole” and “declared to be a legal person.” Two guardians, one from the Crown and one from a Whanganui River iwi, will be given the role of protecting the river. This treaty is especially important because it “recognises the intrinsic interconnection between the Whanganui River and the people of the River (both iwi and the community generally),” and finds “the health and wellbeing of the Whanganui River is intrinsically interconnected with the health and wellbeing of the people."

In March 2017, the Treaty settlement passed into law.

Although New Zealand has not formally adopted the Rights of Nature into statutory or constitutional law, the nation has acknowledged the inherent rights of nature by granting legal personhood to selected lands and rivers.

Partners, Movement Rights, recently visited New Zealand to learn the extent and process of both legislations. Read the blog here.

Further Reading:

1) In New Zealand, Lands and Rivers Can Be People (legally speaking), New York Times

2) Agreement entitles Whanganui River to legal identity, NZ Herald

3) Te Urewera Act 2014

4) Te Awa Tupua (Whanganui River Claims Settlement) Bill

5) Tutohu Whakatupua Agreement between the Whanganui Iwi and the Crown