A River in New Zealand Now Has the Same Rights as a Living Human Being

The court ruled in favor of the local Whanganui tribe, which has been fighting for the country to recognize the river as its ancestor for over 100 years.
March 16, 2017, 8:40pm
Photo via Flickr user mtrappitt

Ending a 140-year litigation—the longest in the country's history—a river in New Zealand was granted the same legal rights as a human being on Wednesday, the Guardian reports.

The case was brought forth by the local Whanganui tribe, which has been wanting the country to recognize the river—known as Te Awa Tupua—as its ancestor for the past 14 decades. The court ruled in the tribe's favor Wednesday, and the body of water's new status means that any harm done to the river will be viewed as harm done to a member of the tribe.

"The reason we have taken this approach is because we consider the river an ancestor and always have," Gerrard Albert, the lead negotiator for the Whanganui, told the Guardian. "We have fought to find an approximation in law so that all others can understand that from our perspective treating the river as a living entity is the correct way to approach it, as in indivisible whole, instead of the traditional model for the last 100 years of treating it from a perspective of ownership and management."

Though Te Awa Tupua, New Zealand's third-largest river, is thousands of years old, it now needs legal guardians like a toddler without parents. The two guardians—one appointed from the tribe, the other from the government—will oversee the body of water's "rights, duties, and liabilities," according to politician Chris Finlayson.

The ruling is the first of its kind to give a river personhood rights, and could pave the way for similar legislation aimed at protecting mountains, forests, and other natural features tribes see as their own.

"Rather than us being masters of the natural world, we are part of it," Albert said. "We want to live like that as our starting point. And that is not an anti-development, or anti-economic use of the river, but to begin with the view that it is a living being, and then consider its future from that central belief."