Wellington, March 19: For the first of its kind, the Whanganui River in New Zealand has gained a legal identity which means it will have corresponding rights, duties and liabilities of a legal person. The Wanghanui River has become a person after the Te Awa Tupua Bill was passed by the Governor due to the efforts of local Maori people for whom the river is significant part of their culture.
The legal negotiator of the river, Gerrerd Albert said that "the reason we have taken this approach is because we consider the river an ancestor and always have.” The Māori have fought for formal legal recognition of their connection to the river, which they refer to as "Te Awa Tupua," since the 1870s. "Te Awa Tupua will have its own legal identity with all the corresponding rights, duties and liabilities of a legal person," Mr. Finlayson, the treaty negotiation Minister said.
As it cannot speak for itself, the river will have two human representatives, one appointed by the iwi and one by the government, for any future court proceedings. "I know some people will say 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," Finlayson said.
The significance of the river has deep roots in Māori tradition, with the well-being of Te Awa Tupua often linked directly to the well-being of the iwi. In the Māori language, this connection is encapsulated by the old saying, "Ko au te awa, ko te awa ko au," which means, "I am the river and the river is me.”
The Māori lived and traveled near the river for generations. But by the late 20th century, tourists and boaters had begun to take over the river. "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 iwi their rightful obligations and responsibilities to the river that runs through their veins," Māori Party co-leader Marama Fox said.
While this appears to be the first time a river has become a legal person, the phenomenon is not entirely unprecedented. Te Urewera National Park, also in New Zealand, achieved similar recognition in 2014.