The Maori people wept with joy. They celebrated their beloved river being granted the same rights as a human being by the New Zealand government. This means the river now has a legal right to exist. Defenders of the river can now use the courts to sue anyone who seeks to harm it.
It was one of New Zealand’s longest running court cases, lasting 140 years. It ended on March 17th, 2017 with the government finally recognizing the Te Awa Tupua river as being its own owner.
From time immemorial, the Maori people have viewed this river as a living being. They relate to the river as kin and depend on the river for survival. The Te Awa Tupua river also has great spiritual significance to them. They say, “I am the river and the river is me.” They believe the wellbeing of the river and their own wellbeing are one and the same.
The legal rights of nature have also been granted to New Zealand forests and mountains in recent years.
While equating nature with some of the rights of humans may sound a bit odd, many countries have been granting legal rights of personhood to corporations. If we can recognize businesses as people, perhaps it is high time that we show the same respect to the environment.
New Zealand isn’t the only country that has begun to seek legal rights for nature. In 2008, Ecuador was the first country to add the legal rights of nature to its constitution. According to Ecuadorian politician, Alberto Acosta, ”The human being is a part of nature, and [we] must prohibit human beings from bringing about the extinction of other species or destroying the functioning of natural ecosystems.”
As of 2020, at least a dozen other countries have granted rights to nature either on the national or local level. Recently, a court in Bangladesh recognized the Turag river as a living entity with legal rights. This ruling helped to protect the river from further pollution.
We are living in an age of unprecedented species extinction and ecological destruction. Exploiting nature as an economic resource is unsustainable. It’s a ticking time bomb. Indigenous cultures show us that there is another way, and some activists, politicians and courts are listening. Nature is as alive as we are.