Nestled in a hanging valley in New Zealand’s Fiordland National Park, Lake Marian mirrors its stunning surroundings. Breathtaking landscapes like this are commonplace in New Zealand, and the indigenous Māori iwi intends to keep it that way. In 2014, local Māori signed an agreement with the New Zealand government to grant legal personhood to the Te Urewera Forest. The agreement created statutory guardians for the forest and transferred land ownership rights from the government to Te Urewera itself. Essentially, the forest now owns itself and can have legal standing in court. In 2017, a similar personhood status was granted to the Whanganui River.
Incorporating indigenous environmental worldviews into Western legal frameworks, as New Zealand has done, is a growing movement that has been adopted in Ecuador, Bolivia, India, and more. In the U.S., however, this movement remains at the municipal level, its growth stunted by our current legal system. My research comparatively analyzes “Rights of Nature” laws from around the world to determine which frameworks might best work in the United States. In evaluating the success of these laws, I hope to determine how legal acknowledgment of Nature’s rights can strengthen U.S. environmental law and improve our conservation efforts.