Jim McMahon

If you’re ever in New Zealand, be careful how you treat the Whanganui River—it has the same legal rights you have. A court recently gave the river the status of a living being, a first for a natural resource. It’s a victory for the indigenous Maori people, who have long considered the Whanganui a living ancestor. Now, if someone abuses the river, the New Zealand law would treat that person as if he or she harmed a human. Other countries have recently taken similar steps without specifying particular resources: Ecuador’s constitution recognized the right of nature to exist in 2008, and Bolivia passed a law in 2011 granting nature equal rights with humans. Environmentalists are applauding the trend as a way to protect nature from pollution and overdevelopment. So does this mean a river or mountain near you could be the next “person”? Experts say it’s a long shot in the U.S., where activists have been unsuccessful in gaining full legal rights for animals. “It would be an even further stretch to confer standing directly on rivers, mountains, and forests,” says Jody Freeman, director of the environmental law program at Harvard Law School in Massachusetts.