Trans-human Legal Subjectivity: ‘I Am the River and the River Is Me’

In New Zealand, Lands and Rivers Are Now Recognized as Legal Persons


What if legal subjectivity can finally be conceived of as a trans-human legal concept?

It is no great news that corporations, associations and governments are treated as persons before the law, but what about soil, rivers, mountains, trees or animals? What does it take to be granted legal personhood, and thus legal protection and rights? What does it mean to further extend the concept of legal subjectivity to include non-human subjects such as rivers or lakes?

A recently published New York Times article – In New Zealand, Lands and Rivers Can Be People (Legally Speaking) – reports on the interesting implications of a recent agreement signed between New Zealand’s government and Maori groups. With the signing of this agreement, the Te Urewera National Park became a legally recognized person. The Whanganui River System is expected to receive the same legal status soon.

The recognition of a river system as a person, the article explains, carries with it some important legal implications. It means, “among other things, that lawsuits to protect the land can be brought on behalf of the land itself, with no need to show harm to a particular human.”

Christine Black’s book The Land is the Source of the Law: A Dialogic Encounter with Indigenous Jurisprudence (Routledge Cavendish, 2011) provides a great source of information and creativity for those interested in similar conflicts over land and resources between indigenous people and governments, as well as in indigenous jurisprudence.

In any case, so to speak, we will keep an eye on further developments, which put emphasis on a sensible legal subject that transcends the rigid concept of the “human.”

Perhaps, a rock does not have to feel pain, and an island does not need to cry in order to become a legal person. Sure, Simon says, but  who is Simon, anyway?