A river in New Zealand is recognised as a living entity

After 140 years of negotiation, New Zealand’s parliament has approved a bill recognising the Whanganui river as having the same legal rights as a human being

“I am the river and the river is me,” reads an ancient Māori proverb, celebrated by the indigenous Whanganui iwi tribe of North Island, New Zealand. Since the 1870s, the tribe has attempted to convince the New Zealand government to recognise the Whanganui river – the third largest in the country – as a living entity with legal rights.

Formally approved on 15 March, the law is the first of its kind and will officially acknowledge the 290 km river as a “living whole” to be protected from harm and represented in court if necessary. Two legal ‘parents’ or guardians have been assigned to oversee the river’s health and wellbeing.

Representatives of the Whanganui iwi in attendance at parliament are said to have wept and sung with joy following the announcement.

“We have taken this approach because we consider the river an ancestor and always have,” Gerrard Albert, the lead negotiator for the Whanganui iwi, told the Guardian.

We consider the river an ancestor and always have

“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 an indivisible whole, instead of the traditional model for the last 100 years of treating it from a perspective of ownership and management.”

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The agreement has been welcomed as a warning to anyone threatening the river’s health. The settlement includes a compensation of NZ$80m (£65m) to the iwi, plus a NZ$30m (£25m) protection fund to be paid by the government. The settlement is one of 82 deals hoping to repair relations between Māori iwi and the government regarding the Treaty of Waitangi.

Māori iwi regard themselves as part of the universe, at one with and equal to the mountains, the rivers and the seas. So the agreement means that “the river as a whole is absolutely important to the people who are from the river and live on the river,” Adrian Rurawhe, an MP and Māori representative, told Radio NZ.

“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,” said Rurawhe.

The wellbeing of the river is directly linked to the wellbeing of the people

However, the announcement has been met with scepticism by some. The New Zealand government has also issued plans to expand the country’s industrialised dairy sector. Dairy is one of the country’s most profitable exports yet heaviest polluters of rivers.

In 2014, the Te Urewera – formerly a national park in north east New Zealand – was legally recognised as a person and can also be represented in court proceedings.

Just a week after the approval of the Whanganui iwi case, a similar decision was reached in India. On 20 March, the Uttarakhand court declared that the Ganges and its main tributary, the Yamuna – two of the largest and most sacred rivers in the country – would be legally given personhood and assigned guardians. Local lawyers hope the new legislation will tackle ‘severe’ levels of pollution by making it a criminal offence to contaminate the rivers.

According to Himanshu Thakkar, an engineer who coordinates the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, approximately “1.5bn litres of untreated sewage enters the [Ganges] each day,” besides 500m litres of industrial waste.

Image: Felix Engelhardt

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