Giving voice to rivers: Legal personality as a vehicle for recognising indigenous peoples' relationships to water?

Indigenous peoples throughout the world have strong connections to the flowing freshwater of rivers. For instance, Maori - the Indigenous peoples of Aotearoa New Zealand - view many rivers as tupuna (ancestors) and invoke the name of a river to assert their identity. There is a deep belief that humans and water are intertwined as is encapsulated in common tribal sayings such as 'I am the river and the river is me' and 'the river belongs to us just as we belong to the river.' Indigenous peoples, including Maori, wish to achieve particular cultural aspirations in regard to the management of water as a consequence of these relationships. While many state and federal governments throughout the world are increasingly willing to engage with their respective Indigenous Peoples in developing aspirations for comanagement, we argue that the English common law derived legal system continues to restrict Indigenous peoples from achieving their full aspirations. The central question we explore is whether affording rivers legal personality would be a useful tool for governments to employ in order to seek reciprocal relationships with Indigenous peoples. The United States Law Professor Christopher Stone first explored the idea of giving legal personality to natural resources. We argue that it is timely to consider the application of this concept in the specific context of New Zealand's rivers.

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