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The River as a legal person: Evaluating nature rights approaches to environmental protection in Australia

journal contribution
posted on 2023-05-17, 22:22 authored by Mary GoodMary Good

In August 2012, the New Zealand Government signed a landmark preliminary agreement, recognising the ‘legal standing’ and ‘independent voice’ of a major river on NZ’s North Island (Whanganui River). Although the agreement is a significant achievement in itself, it also represents a noteworthy milestone in a broader movement towards the legal recognition of the rights of nature. Christopher Stone, who famously began the international discussion on this topic in 1972 with his book Should Trees Have Standing?, has acknowledged that proposals to confer rights on nature can seem ‘odd or frightening or laughable’. Nevertheless, he maintains that they are ‘neither fanciful nor devoid of operational content’.

The aim of this paper is to evaluate this claim, by exploring the possible benefits and limitations of nature rights approaches to environmental protection. As noted by one commentator two decades ago, ‘[b]efore we get too eager... perhaps we should stop and ask just what it is we are trying to accomplish with a new category of rights’. Ascertaining how nature rights can contribute to existing legal/policy regimes is crucial if these approaches are to fully develop from theory into practice. Criticisms of these approaches, both in terms of their theoretical integrity and practical utility will be considered with a view to answering the question, ‘where to from here?’


Publication title

National Environmental Law Review






Faculty of Law


National Environmental Law Association

Place of publication


Rights statement

Copyright 2013 National Environmental Law Association

Repository Status

  • Restricted

Socio-economic Objectives

Justice and the law not elsewhere classified

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