Sustained inspiration can be found in surprising places. One recent example for me is the granting of legal personhood to three major environmental features of New Zealand: Te Urewera (formerly the National Park) in 2014, the Whanganui River and Taranaki Maunga (formerly Mount Egmont), both in 2017. 

Why surprising? 

Western legal practice and economic systems have most commonly commodified the natural world. Individual ownership focuses on short term use of natural resources. The goal is maximising profits without regard to consequences for either the resource or human communities. Damages to the natural environment, including the ecosystem services that support human life, are left to future generations. 

Climate change and the biodiversity crisis exemplify the worst outcomes of commodification of nature.

Legal personhood turns that thinking on its head, instead requiring that protected features of the landscape be treated with the same respect accorded another person. In this construct, humans are not owners of nature any more than we own relatives – our proper role is guardianship. 

Why inspiring? 

Legal personhood provides a pathway to a respectful, sustainable long-term engagement with nature. Legal personhood for nature provides mechanisms similar to those of a corporation to protect itself. For example, with all the rights of a legal person, the Whanganui River through its human guardians may be able to sue individuals or corporations who harm it or threaten its existence.

But … why should legal personhood be limited to the most obvious natural features? 

The Whanganui River, for example, nature is partially protected by its size and isolation. Why doesn’t the neighbourhood stream that I walk along almost daily deserve equal respect and protection? Don’t the places where we all live, raise families, and earn our livelihoods deserve respect? Don’t we want to leave behind a better world for our mokopuna?

In that context, I’m heartened by a recent Wellington initiative that aims to expand the use of ‘legal personhood’. Zealandia, famous for its urban ecological restoration work in the middle of a city, launched the Sanctuary to Sea Kia Mauriora te Kaiwharawhara project in 2017. The project aims to protect the Kaiwharawhara stream’s fish life by restoring an entire watercourse in a catchment of ~1900 hectares within urban Wellington. The area includes not only Zealandia, but also Otari-Wilton’s Bush, suburban housing areas of Khandallah, Ngaio, and Wadestown, and even some farmland and town belt. 

Now, Terese McLeod and her Taranaki Whānui are exploring the possibility of legal personhood for the Kaiwharawhara awa. Their project seeks to understand what personhood might mean for the awa and for the iwi. The Kaiwharawhara once provided food, waka, and kāinga (home) for the mana whenua. By understanding the values of the awa, the Whānui hope to learn how best to restore and protect the waterway and estuary that have been highly altered by urban development.

The Sanctuary to Sea project breaks new ground. Previous grants of personhood have all occurred within the context of Treaty of Waitangi settlements. In contrast, the possibility of personhood is being pursued as part of a community-wide environmental restoration initiative. Partners include not only Zealandia and the Whānui, but also the regional and city councils, the Department of Conservation, CentrePort, and a number of local community groups. 

The Sanctuary to Sea project is also novel in aiming to apply the personhood concept to a modest-scale environmental feature – a stream or awa – in an urban environment. Cities are leading players in ecological restoration in New Zealand, and their work deserves the respect and recognition that personhood would bring. 

One measure of the vision of Sanctuary to Sea as a restoration project is that it attracted Māori partnership. By considering possible personhood for the awa, Taranaki Whānui are endorsing the project and potentially adding future protection. Their endorsement indicates that the project reflects their values. 

The project is being actively supported by Professor Catherine Iorns Magallanes of Victoria University of Wellington, an expert in indigenous rights and environmental law. With international colleagues, Professor Iorns Magallanes has written that “Recognising the rights of nature is an opportunity to elevate the power of Indigenous Peoples’ laws and worldview to benefit all peoples.” 

Is the Sanctuary to Sea project a model for Hawke’s Bay? Water will be a defining environmental issue for Hawke’s Bay in the coming century. Securing its future for the region will be critical for our cities, tourism and the agriculture that drive our economy. Restoring our rivers is also a central component of environmental justice for Māori. 

Respect for nature and a desire for a healthy natural environment are driving dozens, probably hundreds of local community environmental projects. But we need to think bigger and learn to work together — we have a mighty task ahead to restore our waterways and leave future generations the environment they deserve. 

Concepts like environmental personhood might just provide the inspiration we need to envision and realise that future.

Charles Daugherty is Emeritus Professor of Ecology, Victoria University. Awarded an ONZM for his work on tuatara ecology and management. A former trustee of Zealandia, he’s involved with Biodiversity Hawke’s Bay since retiring to Hawke’s Bay, serving as chair of the trust board, but writing in his personal capacity.

Photo: Tom Allan 

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1 Comment

  1. The ultimate act of human hubris: hello river, mountain! You are now a person, one of us. You can use our courts and our legal system.

    This is all the wrong way around.

    Humans were once a small insignificant part of nature, of life. Then, buoyed by our evolutionary success, we invented gods and we had them telling us that we were different, special; that we had dominion over nature, even an obligation to assert that dominion. And now we go further and say that nature can be one of us! Not all nature, mind you—just the odd, extra-special river or mountain. How elitist, how colonial!

    Nature . . life, does not have rights. Nature just IS. It is we who have obligations and responsibilities, not just to nature, but also to the future and our descendants.

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