This is a historical shift, with unpredicted consequences, a decision that has the potential to reshape the environmental laws worldwide. Up to now we were speaking about the human rights related to water access. From now on, water bodies like rivers are assigned human rights too!

In New Zealand, the Whanganui River, after an almost 150 years debate, will become a legal entity and have a legal voice under a preliminary agreement signed between Whanganui River iwi and the Crown tonight. This is the first time a river has been given a legal identity.

Whanganui River, New Zealand, Maori, water, river, human rights, environmental justice, environmental law, sustainability, sustainable development, access to water

The settlement means the river, the third-longest in the country, has all the rights, duties and liabilities that come with personhood. Among other things, the river could now be represented in court proceedings, Treaty Negotiations Minister Chris Finlayson said. “I know the initial inclination of 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.”

Whanganui iwi had fought for recognition of its relationship with the river since the 1870s. The tribes of Whanganui take their name, their spirit and their strength from the great river which flows from the mountains of the central North Island to the sea. For centuries the people have travelled the Whanganui River by canoe, caught eels in it, built villages on its banks, and fought over it. The people say, ‘Ko au te awa. Ko te awa ko au’ (I am the river. The river is me).

“The river as a whole is absolutely important to the people who are from the river and live on the river,” said MP Adrian Rurawhe, who represents the Maori. “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.” Members of the Maori community celebrated the news with tears and music in New Zealand’s parliament.


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