A New Zealand River Has Human Rights. Now Will Modern Law Come To Its Senses?

Our system of law has the rights issue exactly backward. But humanity is slowly reawakening to the simple logic that Mother Earth’s rights must come before human rights.


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In March, New Zealand passed a bill making the Whanganui River the first river in the world to hold the same legal rights, responsibilities, and liabilities as a human person.

It was a stunning breakthrough in a rights issue that could be a crucial step toward ensuring a human future. In March, New Zealand passed the Te Awa Tupua Bill making New Zealand’s Whanganui River the first river in the world to hold the same legal rights, responsibilities, and liabilities as a human person. For the Maori people, it was the culmination of a 140-year struggle to gain recognition of the river as an ancestor of the tribe.

The victory quickly had a major consequence far beyond New Zealand’s borders.

Only two weeks later, citing the New Zealand law as precedent, a court in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand gave the Ganges River and its main tributary, the Yamuna River, the status of living human entities. Henceforth, polluting or damaging these rivers will be a legal equivalent to harming a person.

I learned of New Zealand’s breakthrough from my longtime friend and colleague Shannon Biggs, executive director of Movement Rights and co-founder of the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature. Biggs and her Movement Rights co-founder, Pennie Opal Plant, traveled to New Zealand last November as guests of the Maori to learn and share with the world the lessons of their historic victory. Biggs further elaborates those lessons in her report published in Earth Island Journal.

Humanity is slowly reawakening to the essential truth that nature—the living Earth—is the source of human existence and is essential to our nurture. It is simple logic that the needs of Mother Earth must come before ours.

That, in turn, implies that Earth’s rights must come even before human rights.

This logic has sweeping implications for a modern system of law that gives corporations more rights than people and nature no rights at all. Just as our human existence depends on the health and well-being of a living Earth, the existence of corporations depends on the health and well-being of human society.

So at its foundation, modern law has the rights issue exactly backward.

Significant as New Zealand’s action is, it represents only a first step in an essential rethinking and restructuring of a system of law crafted by the rulers of an Imperial Civilization to secure their own power and privilege. The system is ill-suited to the needs of an Ecological Civilization that is expected to meet the needs of all in a balanced, co-productive relationship with a living Earth.

In our transition from Imperial Civilization to Ecological Civilization, we have much to learn from indigenous people as humanity’s elders—keepers of our human memory of a time when we saw ourselves clearly as part of nature.

Earth cared for us, and we cared for her. We organized around the rivers, forests, and prairies. We depended on them for our means of living. We honored them as our ancestors. This was a time when no one had yet invented an exclusive claim or right to own, destroy, or sell a portion of nature’s territory in disregard of the present or future needs of others.

Living in balance with nature came easily when our dependence was self-evident. Now that, despite our technological sophistication, we have reached and exceeded the limits of Earth’s capacity, shouldn’t our dependence once again be self-evident?

Perhaps the anomalies created by giving a river the rights and liabilities of a living person will force us to rethink and revise the foundational principles of modern law. What is the river’s liability to a person whose lands it floods or the swimmer it drowns? How are the seemingly intractable conflicts between legally proclaimed territorial rights of nature, humans, and corporations to be resolved?

My thanks to the Maori people who persevered to compel us all to address these essential questions.

David Korten wrote this article for YES! Magazine as part of his series of biweekly columns on “A Living Earth Economy.” David is co-founder and board chair of YES! Magazine, president of the Living Economies Forum, a member of the Club of Rome, and the author of influential books, including When Corporations Rule the World and Change the Story, Change the Future: A Living Economy for a Living Earth. His work builds on lessons from the 21 years he and his wife, Fran, lived and worked in Africa, Asia, and Latin America on a quest to end global poverty. Follow him on Twitter @dkorten and Facebook. As do all YES! columnists, he writes here in his personal voice.

This article was republished from YES! Magazine.

See also:
Want To Get “Back To The Land”? You’re Not Alone
10 Indigenous And Environmental Struggles—And How You Can Help In 2017

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April 8, 2020

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