By SOPHIE STONE

 

The Whanganui River has just been granted legal status as a person. Here’s my rundown of why this is important:

 

For a start, this isn’t a new concept

Or at least not to Māori. The Whanganui saying which sums up the entire viewpoint behind the river being granted personhood, “Ko au te awa, ko te awa ko au” or “I am the river and the river is me,” describes the symbiotic relationship between the river and the people who live around and utilise it.

The river has a huge amount of cultural significance to local iwi, being regarded as a tupuna or ancestor, and prior to European arrival in New Zealand, the river was a home for a large number of Māori villages. From a Māori perspective, the river has always been regarded as its own entity. It’s just only now the law is recognising it.

In fact, a similar event already occurred in 2014. The government gave up ownership of Te Urewera, a national park in the North Island which was established in 1954, meaning it effectively owns itself.  

 

It marks the end of one of the longest running legal cases in New Zealand history

Whanganui iwi have been fighting for the river to be protected and to be considered from their point of view, as an independent entity worthy of self ownership, for more than 150 years. It’s a groundbreaking achievement for them to have the Whanganui River granted legal rights, under the name Te Awa Tupua.

I spoke to Kiri Wilson from the Whanganui Youth Council, who described the rivers’ new status as being “a great thing, it’s been a long time coming and to see the fruits of our old people’s vision is truly special.”

 

This is a world first that’s already influenced other nations  

This is the first time a river has ever been legally acknowledged with the same rights as a person.

The act of granting legal personhood to natural features ensures that they receive more protection and respect. This is a benefit that people from other nations are acknowledging, as already one week on from the river being granted personhood, India has followed suit by giving the same status to the Yamuna and Ganges rivers.

Similar to the Whanganui River, they are both sacred, personified as goddesses by Hindus, and have been facing pollution for decades. The decision to declare them as living entities was inspired by the Whanganui River, in a desperate attempt to preserve them. Similarly they will be represented in court by three government officials.

It’s possible other countries could take a similar approach too, as Kiri explained. “We have had contact from countries all over the world enquiring about how they too can look at this as an option.”

 

This has the power to affect how we view our land and resources

The government has taken the Whanganui iwi’s perspective into account and incorporated it into a legal decision, in an effort to respect the impact the river has on them.

This perspective of viewing natural resources as a source of identity and as spiritual ancestors is not something you can say you typically see represented in law. It may shift the way many people view land in terms of being equally as important as people, and worthy of our respect.

Either way, the legal rights of the river protect it from any damaging human intervention, ensuring that regardless of perspective, people cannot pollute it. Its two representatives, one Crown representative and one iwi member, will represent the river in court and address any concerns about environmental degradation.

“I believe that this legislation will enable us to take care of the river and all waterways that contribute to the flow of the river.” Kiri stated. “We now have legal ground to stand on. People have different views on how the action of this legislation will play out, and for some understanding on what this actually means for the river and it’s people differs however the general understanding is that people have been supportive.”

 

It’s possible that more natural features in New Zealand could be granted the same rights

Here in New Zealand, two culturally significant natural features have been granted the legal rights of people. Who’s to say there won’t be more in the future?

Mt Taranaki could be a possible candidate. Similar to the Whanganui River, it’s considered to be a tupuna, and a source of identity for Taranaki iwi.

Not only this, negotiations between iwi and the Crown over its ownership already began earlier this month. It’s possible that Taranaki iwi may decide to adopt a similar approach to the one shown in Whanganui and Te Urewera, declaring the mountain as its own entity. Either way, the fact that there now lies the possibility to take this approach opens up similar prospects for other natural features in New Zealand.

Regardless of anyone’s opinion on the river’s new legal status, one thing’s for certain: the Whanganui River is a beautiful natural feature that deserves to be protected.

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