After a hard-fought battle, the New Zealand government has granted the full legal rights of a person to a river.
A legal wrangle lasting 160 years ended this week with a vote in Parliament recognizing the elevated legal status for the powerful, 90-mile Whanganui River, whose interests will now be represented in court by two guardians from the indigenous community. The river was also granted some $80 million in damages as well as $30 million to improve the new “person’s” health and $1 million to set up a framework to represent the river’s interests.
The local Maori people have always recognized the Whanganui ― which they call Te Awa Tupua ― as “kin” and an “indivisible and living whole.”
Adrian Rurawhe, a Maori member of Parliament, told the New Zealand Herald that the monumental change proves that “people are catching up to seeing things the way that we see them.” He told Radio New Zealand that it’s important the river is “recognized as its own identity.”
Treaty negotiations minister Chris Finlayson said the Whanganui River Claims Settlement Law will treat the river much the same as trusts, using guardians to protect its interests.
“There had been a lot of talk that this is actually a really good way of ensuring that [a] resource is able to have representatives to address the kind of environmental degradation that so many natural resources suffer from,” Finlayson said.
The Maori view their own health as inextricably linked to the health of the river. There’s even a Maori saying that says: “I am the river and the river is me.”
“We have a chance to restore Te Awa Tupua to its life-giving essence and, in doing so, to gift back to the Whanganui River [tribe} their rightful obligations and responsibilities to the river that runs through their veins,” said Maori Party co-leader Marama Fox.
In 2013, Te Urewera National Park was also recognized as a legal entity with all the rights of a person.
After the new river law was passed, a group of Maori and supporters in the parliamentary chamber sang a traditional waita folk song to celebrate.