by Jeff Jones


Recently the Parliament of New Zealand recognized its ninety-mile Whanganui River as a true legal person. New Zealand’s Treaty Negotiations Minister Chris Finlayson proudly reported that the Whanganui River “will have its own legal identity with all the corresponding rights, duties and liabilities of a legal person.” The Whanganui River also won legal representation. New Zealand appointed to the River two legal guardians: one from the New Zealand government and one from the local Maori people, who view the Whanganui River as a part of themselves.

You may think it silly to give a river legal rights. But rights are just tools for recognizing and protecting stuff we care about.

New Zealand isn’t alone in giving nature legal rights. In 2010 Bolivia went big and passed the Law of Mother Earth. Bolivia defines Mother Earth as “a dynamic living system comprising an indivisible community of all living systems and living organisms, interrelated, interdependent and complementary, which share a common destiny.” Mother Earth won a bunch of rights, too: to life, to water, to clean air, to balance, etc. And under the law all levels of Bolivian government and the Bolivian people have a legal duty to protect Her rights.

Now, pretend for one minute that you want to be a natural resource. (Trust me. I’m going somewhere with this.) If you had to choose between becoming New Zealand’s Whanganui River or Bolivia’s Mother Earth, both legal people now, who would you choose to become?

If you’re a trustworthy “bigger is always better” American than you probably chose Mother Earth. But from a legal perspective your best bet is the Whanganui River. Why? Because in addition to its other rights the Whanganui River was given an express right to not just one, but two lawyers.

How many lawyers did Mother Earth get? Diddly-squat. Nada. El-Zilcho. A right to a lawyer wasn’t a part of Mother Earth’s deal. And if Mother Earth can’t get a lawyer, the next time legal troubles find Her She’s probably in for a “world” of hurt and disappointment. God forbid that Her opponents have lawyers when She does not.

That’s just like a lot of us, right? Right? Last year a report from the American Bar Association found that in the US “most people living in poverty, and the majority of moderate income individuals do not receive the legal help they need.” The report also noted that 80% of poor Americans poverty go unrepresented in serious, “make-or-break” civil legal matters. Matters such as evictions, mortgage foreclosures, child custody and support, bankruptcy and debt collection, domestic violence, immigration and education. The ABA report concluded that these problems “are experienced across the population, by rich and poor, young and old, men and women, all racial groups, all religions.”

So you see:

  1. Legal rights are only as good as the enforcement power behind them.
  2. Exercising legal rights is really hard without a lawyer.
  3. And getting a lawyer is often impossible without a legal right to one.

Or a heap of money. That’s true whether you’re a river, working schlubs like you and me, or the whole-danged Earth.

For more on the Whanganui River and its new legal status:

Photo by James Shook
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