News of Zealand

New Zealand's Whanganui River Has Just Been Granted Legal Status as a Person

The landmark case, 160 years in the making, enshrines Māori world view in modern legislation.

by Tess McClure
16 March 2017, 9:45pm

(image of Whanganui River via flickr)

In a landmark international case, the Whanganui river in New Zealand has just been granted legal status as a person.

The iwi of Whanganui have been fighting for generations to have the river granted personhood. The new law is designed to work like a charitable trust—with trustees for the river legally required to act in its best interest. Speaking to RNZ, Te Tai Hauāuru MP Adrian Rurawhe said some people might find the concept strange but it was completely normal for Māori.

"The river as a whole is absolutely important to the people who are from the river and live on the river.

"It's not that we've changed our world view but people are catching up to seeing things how we see it."

Mr Rurawhe told Te Manu Korohi that iwi had been fighting for over 160 years to get this recognition for their river.

"From a Whanganui viewpoint the wellbeing of the river is directly linked to the wellbeing of the people and so it is really important that's recognised as its own identity," he said.

"We treat the river as a tupuna, as an ancestor, and we needed to find something that would approximate that in law and uphold it.

"We've always fought for the mana of the river," lead negotiator for Whanganui iwi Gerrard Albert said in an interview with Morning Report. "We treat the river as a tupuna, as an ancestor, and we needed to find something that would approximate that in law and uphold it. And from there, ensure that people understand it and work with it."

The Te Awa Tupua (Whanganui River Claims Settlement) Bill, passed its third reading in Parliament this week. It recognises the river as an indivisible and living whole from the mountains to the sea.

The legal change follows a similar decision in 2014 to grant Te Urewera, Tūhoe's tribal lands, the same status. 

Te Urewera from above.Image by DOC via Flickr

Treaty Negotiations Minister Chris Finlayson said the legislation recognised the deep spiritual connection between Whanganui iwi and their ancestral river, and would help protect its future. "There some precedents for it overseas—there had been a lot of talk that this is actually a really good way of ensuring that the particular resource is able to have representative to address the kind of environmental degradation that so many natural resources suffer from."

Jacinta Ruru, Professor of Law at Otago University says the new legislation is changing the way New Zealanders think about the land and drawing a lot of interest from indigenous groups internationally. 

"The way we're interacting with the world is changing, particularly with climate change," Ruru told VICE. "The legal personality idea puts the environment right up front and centre. Here's a way we can ensure that we consider the wellbeing of the environment—land or rivers—and we have to be respectful. I see that legal personality concept as something that is very exciting." 

Whanganui River in the morning. Evan Goldberg via flickr

Ruru says she has received lots of inquiries from indigenous groups in the States and Canada who are drafting legislation based on this legal personality principle to put forward to their state legislators. A number of delegations are visiting New Zealand this year to find out more about how the law is managed. In Whanganui, one iwi member and one Crown representative will be the river's voice. 

"From a Maori perspective, a place is inherently where you're from  and who you are so to have the Crown asserting ownership of that land can go against the fundamental ideas of one's own identity," says Ruru. 

"Tūhoe have always asserted very strongly that Te Urewera is who they are. It was one of their bottom lines and a negotiating tactic. The legal personality idea was put forward as one way to neutralise the ownership issue and say, well actually this place owns itself. The Crown doesn't own it, Maori don't own it. It has its own heartbeat, its own responsibility and its own rights and mana and wairua."

Follow Tess on Twitter.