By Paul Davies and Michael Green

New Zealand’s Parliament has just passed a bill to enable the Whanganui River to be recognised as a legal person. It will now be represented by two nominees: one appointed by the Maori Muir Woodscommunity (or Iwi), and another appointed by the government. Part of the settlement includes a fund of $28 million to protect the river and $75 million in financial redress to the Iwi. Chris Finlayson, New Zealand’s attorney general and minister for treaty negotiations described the move as “unprecedented” but also emphasised that it was equivalent to assigning legal personality to companies.

As a result of this development, the river will have its own legal standing with all corresponding rights, duties and liabilities of a legal person. This is the first instance anywhere of extending legal personality to a natural entity. In so doing, it represents a significant shift in giving specific natural objects a legal personality and could potentially lead to a material change in how such objects are protected under environmental laws.