Two years ago, when New Zealand’s government granted legal personhood to one of its 13 national parks—Te Urewera, a lush, forested landscape teeming with trails and waterfalls on the North Island—some 821 square miles was suddenly protected not as land but as a citizen.
The law was called the Te Urewera Act, and its purpose was this: “to establish and preserve in perpetuity a legal identity and protected status for Te Urewera for its intrinsic worth, its distinctive natural and cultural values, the integrity of those values, and for its national importance.” Suddenly, the land’s management board had a powerful tool for upholding natural protections in court, including the ability to file lawsuits on behalf of the land itself. In a similar case that is ongoing, New Zealand’s Parliament introduced a bill to grant legal personhood to the nation’s third longest river, the Whanganui; it is expected to pass later this year. Local Maori tribes had long argued they owned Te Urewera and the Whanganui, but they hadn’t made headway until the idea emerged to cede ownership to the earth itself.
“From our perspective as Maori, we believe that we come from the land and that the land has its own personality, its own heartbeat, its own health, its own soul,” says Jacinta Ruru, a law professor at the University of Otago who specializes in indigenous rights. “The government was not willing to give ownership of that national park back to that tribe, so this legal personality concept resonated and is a term that both sides—the government and Maori tribes—can create a solution around: it’s an ancestor that owns itself.”
Imbuing landscapes with civil liberties is an idea gaining ground around the world. It’s fueled by a principle called “rights of nature,” which holds that mountains, rivers, and ecosystems should have entitlements, just like we do. The idea was broached by University of Southern California law professor Christopher Stone in a 1972 paper titled, “Should trees have standing?” It became the concept’s definitive explanation, and its legacy endures today. “We sort of picked up where his work left off, thinking this actually could work in law and it might resonate really well with indigenous groups,” Ruru says of Stone’s paper.
Legislation similar to New Zealand’s is also on the books in Ecuador and Bolivia. A group in India is trying to protect the Ganges River with a comparable law to the Te Urewera Act. Now, if a handful of rights of nature advocates in the U.S. have their way, we’ll start seeing more public lands here gain legal rights of their own.
“I think [the act’s rationale] can work in America, Canada, Australia—we all share very similar legal jurisdictions and I can see it applying in a very similar way as it has here,” Ruru says. “The trick to enabling that and getting everyone to buy into it and believe in it is really the management regime that sits over top of it.”
Next year, a multinational delegation of 20 land and water activists, environmental lawyers, and indigenous people from North and South America are planning a fact-finding mission to New Zealand to learn more about how the Te Urewera Act came to be and how its legal principles might be applied at home. Shannon Biggs, director of San Francisco-based Movement Rights, is planning the trip. “I think it’s the most revolutionary piece of legislation anywhere in the world,” she says. “We work with communities passing local laws that recognize something similar—rights of nature—but this goes much further. The potential to radically shift how we protect ecosystems is embedded in what they are doing there.”
More than 100 communities in the U.S. have already enacted some form of rights-of-nature legislation on the local level, Biggs says. In April 2013, as part of a 10-year process toward becoming a “sustainable city,” the city council in Santa Monica, California, passed an ordinance that empowered the city and residents to file suit on behalf of local ecosystems. The law could apply if, say, an otherwise legal development or activity threatened a natural area. Movement Rights also worked with Mendocino County, in northern California, to write an ordinance giving the county the right to be free from fracking. And in 2006, local leaders in Tamaqua Borough, Pennsylvania, worked with the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund and Movement Rights to ban toxic sludge dumping on similar legal grounds.
Such laws don’t eliminate or change property ownership, as New Zealand’s act did, but they give Biggs hope that similar edicts could work in higher government. “Starting at the federal level is not possible yet,” she says. “We need that local groundswell to take incremental steps up to the state then federal level.”
“All of this work outside the United States makes it so much more possible here,” Biggs adds. “The future can look like New Zealand. It’s not scary. We’re not talking about shutting down the American dream, we’re actually talking about how do we rebuild it so it’s a viable one that can be shared with future generations. It’s kind of inevitable.”