The lives of human beings and rivers have been intertwined since the beginning of mankind, but modern society rarely affords waterways significant protection. Which is what makes a decision by officials in New Zealand to grant the Whanganui River legal personhood status—with its own “rights and interests”—such a intriguing milestone.
According to officials, the settlement awards the river legal personhood “in the same way a company is, which will give it rights and interests.” The river will have two custodians under the agreement, comprised of New Zealand national government and the Whanganui iwi. New Zealand Minister for Waitangi Negotiations Christopher Finlayson says “Today’s agreement which recognises the status of the river as Te Awa Tupua (an integrated, living whole) and the inextricable relationship of iwi with the river is a major step towards the resolution of the historical grievances of Whanganui iwi and is important nationally.”
The Whanganui iwi, a native tribe with historic ties to the river, have long sought protection for the waterway so essential to their lives. Their claim is the continuation of a legal dispute reaching back nearly 140 years, making it one of the longest running court cases in New Zealand. With the agreement, they will work alongside New Zealand government to protect and decide how to best allocate the river’s resources. “Whanganui Iwi also recognise the value others place on the river and wanted to ensure that all stakeholders and the river community as a whole are actively engaged in developing the long-term future of the river and ensuring its wellbeing,” says Finlayson.