THE Whanganui River has been granted the same legal status as a human being by New Zealand’s House of Representatives.
Explaining the world-first decision, the country’s Treaty of Waitangi Negotiations Minister Christopher Finlayson said the river would “have its own legal identity with all the corresponding rights, duties and liabilities of a legal person.”
The Whanganui River is the third longest in New Zealand and holds special significance for its indigenous Maori people, who believe the wellbeing of the river is directly linked with the well-being of the community.
Finlayson said the “Whanganui Iwi has fought for recognition of its relationship with the Whanganui River since the 1870s.”
The Treaty of Waitangi was signed by the British colonial authorities and Maori chiefs in 1840, who ceded sovereignty of the land to Britain, allowed the colonials to buy and trade land, and were given the same rights as British subjects.
The agreement is generally considered the founding document of New Zealand as a nation. Since the 1970s, indigenous activists have referred to the treaty to legally assert their rights and address grievances, particularly regarding land rights claims.
In contrast, neighbouring Australia does not have such a treaty with its Aboriginal population, making it more difficult for traditional land owners to claim legal land rights.
“Today brings the longest running litigation in New Zealand’s history to an end.”
The settlement also includes NZ$80 million (US$56 million) in financial redress to the community and NS$30 million (US$21 million) to improve the environmental sustainability of the river.
“I know the initial inclination of some people is that it’s pretty strange to give a natural resource a legal personality. But it’s no stranger than family trusts, or companies or incorporated societies,” the minister said.
The country’s Maori Party welcomed the decision. Its leader Marama Fox said: “We have a chance to restore Te Awa Tupua to its life-giving essence.”
To do so, she added, was to “gift back to the Whanganui River Iwi their rightful obligations and responsibilities to the river that runs through their veins.”