About Dr. Elizabeth Macpherson – presenter New and Emerging Scholars Symposium 2017

Elizabeth Macpherson, Law, photograph to accompany an article for the Guardian on river rights, 25.9.17 Client, Margaret Agnew, Communications, SSAC.

Dr. Elizabeth Macpherson is a Lecturer at University of Canterbury School of Law, where she teaches human rights, indigenous land and resources law, and natural resources law.  Her research interests are in natural resources, environmental and indigenous law, in Latin American and Australasian contexts.  She has a particular interest in the protection of indigenous and environmental interests in water and also is the  co-editor of the Canterbury Law Review.


Elizabeth completed her PhD thesis, entitled ‘Commercial Indigenous Water Rights in Australian Law: Lessons from Chile’, at the University of Melbourne, under the University’s Human Rights Scholarship. She also worked as a teaching fellow at Melbourne Law School, and later as a research fellow with the Centre for Resources, Energy and Environmental Law. During 2013 she was a visiting researcher at the Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile with support from the International Bar Association’s Scholarship for Energy and Natural Resources Law Studies.

Since graduating with a Bachelor of Laws (honours) and Bachelor of Commerce and Administration from Victoria University of Wellington, Elizabeth has practised as an indigenous rights and environmental lawyer, being admitted as a Barrister and Solicitor of the High Court of New Zealand (2004) and Australian Lawyer and Officer of the Supreme Court of Victoria (2007). She has worked for law firms, government and universities in New Zealand, Australia and Chile. Her experience includes presenting Maori treaty claims before the Waitangi Tribunal whilst a Solicitor at Kensington Swan and carrying out the role of Principal Legal Adviser in public law and Aboriginal affairs for the Victorian Government Department of Premier and Cabinet. In 2016 she was the Assistant Director, Aboriginal Affairs Policy for the Victorian Government, where she advised on the proposal for a treaty between the State and Aboriginal Victorians. Elizabeth is fluent in English and Spanish.

Presentation at 2017 New and Emerging Scholars Symposium

The title of Elizabeth’s presentation is:

“Personifying Water: Legal Rights for Rivers in New Zealand and Colombia”

Elizabeth’s presentation is based on a working draft of a journal article she is preparing.


In the past year there have been several discrete cases, in very different parts of the world, where rivers have been declared to be ‘legal persons’.  A recent little-known case is that of the Rio Atrato in Colombia, released publically in May 2017, in which Colombia’s Constitutional Court recognised that the river is a legal person with reference to the statutory conferral of legal personality on the Whanganui River in Aotearoa New Zealand.

In Elizabeth’s presentation she will interrogate the key features of the legal person model adopted in New Zealand and Colombia and explore the challenges posed by those features in the local context. She will argue that that, although there are critical contextual differences, there are interesting commonalities in the recognition of rivers as legal persons in New Zealand and Colombia, which might herald the emergence of a (loose) transnational concept of legal rights for rivers. Themes common to both cases include the tension between the cultural rights of indigenous peoples and the ecocentric rights of natural resources in river person models. Further, while the implementation of both the Colombian and New Zealand models has just begun, both experiences suggest that the efficacy of rivers as persons will depend on strong institutions, governed by humans, to enforce the river’s rights.

Ongoing research interests

Elizabeth is continuing to research indigenous and environmental interests in natural resources, with a particular focus on freshwater allocation and governance and coastal and marine title and management. She is currently working on a book and several articles on indigenous rights to water in Australasian and South American comparative contexts, and in September 2017 she travelled to Chile and Colombia to carry out further research.  A similar trip to Argentina is scheduled for November. She is also a co-author of a forthcoming text on companies law, discussing the use of corporate governance structures for Māori organisations.

Click to see her academic papers.


Email: elizabeth.macpherson@canterbury.ac.nz

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