What if nature, like corporations, had
the rights and protections of a person?
October 10, 2016
In recent years, the U.S. Supreme Court has solidified the concept
of corporate personhood. Following rulings in such cases as Hobby
Lobby and Citizens United, U.S. law has established that companies
are, like people, entitled to certain rights and protections.
But that’s not the only instance of extending legal rights to
nonhuman entities. New Zealand took a radically different approach
in 2014 with the Te Urewera Act which granted an 821-square-mile
forest the legal status of a person. The forest is sacred to the
Tūhoe people, an indigenous group of the Maori. For them Te Urewera
is an ancient and ancestral homeland that breathes life into their
culture. The forest is also a living ancestor. The Te Urewera Act
concludes that “Te Urewera has an identity in and of itself,” and
thus must be its own entity with “all the rights, powers, duties,
and liabilities of a legal person.” Te Urewera holds title to
Although this legal approach is unique to New Zealand, the
underlying reason for it is not. Over the last 15 years I have
documented similar cultural expressions by Native Americans about
their traditional, sacred places. As an anthropologist, this
research has often pushed me to search for an answer to the profound
question: What does it mean for nature to be a person?....