Environmental Law Program

Professor Catherine Iorns Presents on “Rivers as Legal Persons”

In a joint event on Thursday, January 25, 2018, the Enviornmental Law Program and Ka Huli Ao Center for Excellence in Native Hawaiian Law hosted “Rivers as Legal Persons: Global Trends in Rights and Responsibilities.”Professor Catherine Iorns, a faculty member of the University of Victoria School of Law, discussed the possibility of nature having rights; and beyond that, the human responsibility to those same rights.

Professor Iorns, using examples throughout the world, illustrated global trend challenging current paradigms and moving towards responsibility for nature.  She highlighted cases in New Zealand, India, and Colombia.  This shift encourages us to look at things differently in order to redefine the relationship we have with the world and its resources. Ultimately, this shift requires us to move from the obligations of rights to responsibilities.  Rivers have been the focus of global shifts towards rights of nature; with “some countries being given rights…some legal personality, and some emphasizing responsibility and guardianship.”

In New Zealand, legislation was passed to view and protect rivers as a legal personality.  The law recognizes Te Awa Tupua, the largest navigable river in New Zealand, as a legal identity in its own right.  The granting of personhood was done by the State, not the courts, in recognition of Maori cosmology, for Human Rights reasons.  As a part of an arrangement as a reparation measure, the law now recognizes both the physical and metaphysical elements of rivers.  The arrangement allocates money and resources to its protection; including appointed legal guardians independent from the state – one for the crown and one for the iwi.  This example is critical to shifting the current paradigm of rights to responsibility.  It takes into account the soul of the river and considers the river itself as an ancestor – a cultural value long recognized by maori.

Students and faculty of the William S. Richardson School of Law and Kamakakūokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies picture with Professor Catherine Iorns of University of Victoria School of Law.

Worth noting is the effect of this newly implemented statute.  While many might view this as a protection of environmental resources, this law was largely implemented as a cultural statute.  It is an avenue to cultural redress for maori people, vesting Te Awa Tupua with title to its own riverbed, statutorily mandated, and allocating a $30 million fund. Professor Iorns asserts that personhood should not be a “last ditch attempt at environmental protection,” but rather, the concept “presents an opportunity,” that should be approached with care.   

Professor Iorns highlights that this arrangement not only provide legal rights to nature, but also reminds us of a number of things: it is a reminder integrate our identities with nature, and as such, to recognize our duty and responsibility to earth.  Ko au te awa, ko te awa ko au – I am the river, the river is me.



To watch Professor Iorns’ full presentation, click here.  Presentation content coming soon!