We Are the River

The New Zealand Parliament has recently granted the Whanganui River and the Te Urewera mountain ecosystem rights as legal persons, with a Māori governing board to speak for the nonhuman entities, based upon traditional cultural precepts. Far from an isolated precedent, in what the U.N. Secretary General calls “the fastest growing legal movement of the twenty-first century,” legislatures, courts, or voters in Australia, Colombia, Ecuador, Bangladesh, India, Uganda, and the U.S. have also declared that rivers and other living systems have legal rights.

This Article chronicles the movement to grant nonhuman entities legal rights. I analyze the statutes and judicial opinions driving this legal evolution, drawing extensively from interviews I conducted with key figures negotiating and advocating for these initiatives. I explain what the current and developing laws and judicial opinions seek to achieve. Deriving from disparate historical, philosophical, and legal backgrounds, they pursue disparate goals; yet all of the moves to grant legal rights to nonhuman entities aim to enshrine in the law the fundamental symbiosis between human and nonhuman ecological health, and to empower suitable stewards who will nurture that symbiosis. I describe how newly vested spokespersons for nature seek to turn novel legal theories into real legal work that protects human and nonhuman communities. I explain who now represents the nonhuman entity and discuss what improvements—for human and nonhuman communities—they hope will redound that would not have resulted from more traditional legal protections. I also discuss early results that have emerged from grants of legal personhood to nonhuman entities.

As these laws inscribe new legal relationships between people and nature, they ask: what does it mean to convert from “we own the River” to “we are the River?” I conclude that by sanctifying the interdependent relationship between human needs and healthy ecosystems, granting legal rights to rivers may contribute to reversing ecological degradation in this century and beyond.

a Professor of Law, University of California, Hastings College of the Law, San Francisco. LL.M., University of London, School of Oriental & African Studies; J.D., University of California Hastings College of the Law; B.S. (Biology), M.A. (History & Philosophy of Science), & Ph.D. (Science & Technology Studies), Cornell University. I thank the people who took the time to speak with me, and I endeavor to present their worldviews accurately: Gerrard Albert, Christopher Finlayson, Ian Hicks, Michelle Maloney, Erin O’Donnell, Claudia Orange, Jorge Iván Palacio, and Anne Poelina. I also thank Susana Aguilera, Hadar Aviram, Larry Carbone, Chris Finlayson, Chimène Keitner, James May, Michelle Maloney, Dave Owen, Michael Pappas, Zach Price, Dorit Reiss, Linda Sheehan, Michael Pappas’ Online Workshop for Environmental Scholarship, and the Green Bag group at the University of Tasmania Law School for intellectual assistance.

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