New Zealand recognises river as a ‘real person’

New Zealand’s most recent citizen has been living in the country for thousands of years. Its name is the Whanganui River and it is, indeed, a river. The legal innovation comes from the Maori culture. Barbara Barkhausen reports from Sydney.

The New Zealand government has recognised the Whanganui River as a living entity, giving it all the rights, duties and liabilities of any person in the country. (Image credit: Kathrin & Stefan Marks, flickr/Creative Commons)

New Zealand’s newest citizen is the Whanganui River, which stretches 300 kilometres from the centre of the North Island down to the Tasmanian Sea.

Last week, New Zealand’s parliament ratified the necessary legislation last week to formally recognise the river as a living entity.

A New Zealand cabinet member defended the uncommon move: “I know the initial inclination of some people will say it’s pretty strange to give a natural resource a legal personality,” Chris Finlayson told the local newspaper New Zealand Herald.

“But it’s no stranger than family trusts, or companies or incorporated societies.”

The river cannot vote

The legislation means that as a legal person, the river has all the rights, duties and liabilities as any citizen of New Zealand. Or perhaps more clearly formulated, as any New Zealand company – as the river naturally cannot vote. But its new status means it can now be represented in court proceedings.

The latter is intended to protect the river and its riverbanks. If someone should drown in the Whanganui, the waterway could not, however, by charged with murder or manslaughter. Here, too, the legal situation more closely resembles that of a company.

But the decision to grant the river the legal status of a real person means that neither the New Zealand government nor the Crown nor even the local Maori tribes can register property rights along the river. The latter two can, however, each send a representative to represent the river’s rights in court.

National park also has legal status

While the river is the first natural resource in New Zealand to have the legal status of a person, a similar innovation was used in 2014 to protect a national park.

In the Tuhoe settlement, the government declared the 2,000-square-kilometre Te Urewara national park on New Zealand’s north island a legal entity with all the rights of a person. The land is legally owned by no one but is jointly managed by the Crown and Tuhoe.

The distinction is fine but important: whereas the Te Urewara is a legal entity with the rights of a person, the Whanganui is now a living entity under the law. But even though both have legal status and thus receive special protection, people are still permitted to visit the river and park as before without fear of being charged with trespassing.

Maori culture puts nature on the same footing as humans

The rationale for this seemingly unusual step is the Maori culture and the importance of the Whanganui River for New Zealand’s indigenous population. In what was New Zealand’s longest running legal dispute, the Whanganui iwi have been fighting to assert their rights over the river since 1873.

According to the beliefs of the Maori, humans are on the same level as nature – be it forests, rivers, mountains, lakes or the sea. Papatūānuku – the Earth Mother – gave birth to all of this, including humans and animals. This worldview was the basis for the government’s decision to treat a national park, or now a river, as a legal person.

The Maori have long fought to defend themselves against the decline of their culture, which was endangered by British settlement and the spread of Christianity. Today they have not only succeeded in establishing Maori as a second official language, but have also integrated their spirituality in modern day New Zealand society, as was reinforced by last week’s decision.

As the New Zealand Herald reported, the Iwi marked the passing of the legislation with a waiata – the Maori word for song – in the House of Representatives.


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