In a world-first victory for environmentalists and indigenous populations, New Zealand has granted full legal personhood to the Whanganui River

The 145km river, which flows from the central North Island to the sea, is sacred to the local Maori people. The battle to have it recognised as a person has been going for over 160 years, according to representatives of the area’s Whanganui Iwi.

While this is the first river in the world to be granted legal personhood, it’s not the first natural feature in New Zealand to have the honour. Te Urewera, a former national park, was granted personhood in 2014 after a settlement with the Crown. Like the Whanganui, it now has “all the rights, powers, duties, and liabilities of a legal person“.

Why would a government want to grant rivers and parks personhood? Basically, to give them the same rights that people have: to not be exploited, degraded, abused and otherwise ruined. It’s a unique and powerful form of environmental conservation. 

Minister for Treaty of Waitangi Negotiations Chris Finlayson spoke to Radio NZ, putting it like this:

“This is actually a really good way of ensuring that the particular resource is able to have representation to address the kind of environmental degradation that so many natural resources suffer from.”

The new law also addresses an ongoing disparity between the viewpoints of the NZ government and the Maori people, who view the land as their ancestral birthplace, and who will be responsible for representing the river’s interests.

“This legislation recognises the deep spiritual connection between the Whanganui Iwi and its ancestral river and creates a strong platform for the future of Whanganui River,” said Finlayson.

Te Tai Hauauru MP Adrian Rurawhe, a Maori politician, told Radio NZ that “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 it’s recognised as its own identity.”

A government choosing to grant personhood to its native features in order to respect, recognise and preserve an indigenous population’s relationship with the land – it almost makes you feel hopeful for the state of the world. 

Source: ABC.

Image: Instagram / @hellopoe.