This River was Granted the Same Rights as a Person

March 15th 2017

Kyle Jaeger

A river in New Zealand is now officially a person in the eyes of the law. 


The settlement means that the river will have all the rights, duties, and liabilities that come with personhood" — including the right to be represented in court — the New Zealand Herald reported.

The Wednesday decision, celebrated by an indigenous group that considers the river sacred, has prompted comparisons to the U.S., where a Native American tribe has been opposing the construction of an oil pipeline that some worry will contaminate sacred water supplies.

Hours before the New Zealand parliament passed a bill granting personhood to the Whanganui River, a U.S. federal judge denied a request from the Standing Rock Sioux tribe to block oil from flowing through the Dakota Access Pipeline, Reuters reported.

Though the court "acknowledges that the tribe is likely to suffer irreparable harm to its members’ religious exercise if oil is introduced into the pipeline," the company behind the pipeline "would also be substantially harmed by an injunction, given the financial and logistical injuries that would ensue," the judge wrote Tuesday.

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According to the Herald, New Zealand's Maori people have sought protections for the Whanganui River and recognition of the group's unique relationship to the river since the late 19th century. 

The river will be represented by two people — one member of the Maori group and one member of the New Zealand government. These individuals will be appointed at a later date.

"I know the initial inclination of some people will say it's pretty strange to give a natural resource a legal personality," Treaty Negotiations Minister Chris Finlayson said Wednesday. "But it's no stranger than family trusts, or companies, or incorporated societies."

In addition to granting the river the same rights as a person, the New Zealand government also agreed to pay $80 million in financial compensation to the Maori people and $30 million to fund a water rehabilitation program for the river.

Meanwhile, about 8,000 miles away, the Standing Rock Sioux tribe in North Dakota is continuing its fight against an oil pipeline that will cross through Lake Oahe and the Missouri River, both of which are held sacred by the tribe. The tribe suffered a significant blow in January after President Donald Trump signed an executive order that expedited the approval process and construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. One month later, the Army Corps. of Engineers granted an easement to the pipelines' builders, Energy Transfer Partners, allowing them to commence construction.