It sounds, admits Chris Finlayson, like a “pretty nutty” idea.  Yet the new law that declares the Whanganui River, New Zealand’s third-longest, a legal person, in the sense that it can own property, incur debts and petition the courts, is not unprecedented.  Te Urewera, an area of forested hills in the north-east that used to be a national park, became a person for legal purposes in 2014.

The law…stems from disputes over the treaty of Waitangi, by which New Zealand’s indigenous Maori ceded sovereignty to British colonialists in 1840…..For the Whanganui iwi the idea of the river as a person is nothing new.  The iwi professes a deep spiritual connection to the Whanganui;  as a local proverb has it: “I am the river and the river is me.

…In practice, two guardians will act for the river, one appointed by the government and one by the iwi.

…Days after the law passed, an Indian court declared two of the biggest and most sacred rivers in India, the Ganges and Yamuna, to be people too…


The full story can be found on page 24 of the 25 March 2017 edition of the Economist.