Whanganui River: This Historic River Has Been Granted Same Legal Rights As Humans


For the first time in the world, a river in New Zealand – the Whanganui River has been granted the same legal identity as a human being with all the corresponding rights, duties and liabilities of a legal person.

The Whanganui River is the third largest in New Zealand – as an ancestor for 140 years, and its local Māori tribe in the North Island has fought for the recognition of their river.

Finally this week, the Maori tribe got their wish as the Te Awa Tupua (Whanganui River Claims Settlement) Bill passed its third reading in Parliament and will come into effect once signed by the Governor General.

In trying to understand the river’s new rights and responsibilities, it’s easiest to think of it like you’d think of a company.

Whanganui River’s new status means if someone abused or harmed it,  the law now sees no differentiation between harming the tribe or harming the river because they are one and the same.

More so, the law has created an office – Te Pou Tupua – to act as “the human face” of the river. Two guardians will be appointed to act on behalf of the river, one from the crown and one from the Whanganui iwi.

The office has a responsibility to speak on behalf of the river, uphold its legal status, and promote the health and wellbeing of the river.

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Financial redress of NZ$80m is included in the settlement, as well as an additional NZ$1m contribution towards establishing the legal framework for the river.

The Crown will bear most of the river’s cost to start with; this is all part of the settlement. A breakdown of the total cost is:

  • NZ$30m for the establishment of Te Korotete (a fund to support the health and wellbeing of the river)
  • NZ$200,000 per year for 20 years for Te Pou Tupua (the “face” of the river, or the two natural persons appointed to act for the river)
  • NZ$430,000 for the establishment of Te Heke Ngahuru (a strategy established to ensure the future environmental, social, cultural and economic health and wellbeing of Te Awa Tupua).

Also, the existing public access and use of the Whanganui River, including navigation rights, will be preserved and not affected by the changes.

The lead negotiator for the Whanganui iwi [tribe] explains that the reason for their approach is because they have always considered the river an ancestor.

Albert said they have fought to find an approximation in law so that all others can understand that from their perspective treating the river as a living entity is the correct way to approach it, as in indivisible whole, instead of the traditional model for the last 100 years of treating it from a perspective of ownership and management.

All Māori tribes regarded themselves as part of the universe, at one with and equal to the mountains, the rivers and the seas, Albert said.

He said the new law now honoured and reflected their worldview, and could set a precedent for other Māori tribes in New Zealand to follow in Whanganui’s footsteps.

“We can trace our genealogy to the origins of the universe. And therefore rather than us being masters of the natural world, we are part of it. We want to live like that as our starting point. And that is not an anti-development, or anti-economic use of the river but to begin with the view that it is a living being, and then consider its future from that central belief,” said Albert.

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Chris Finlayson, the minister for the treaty of Waitangi negotiations, said the decision brought the longest-running litigation in New Zealand’s history to an end. In a statement, Finlayson said:

“Te Awa Tupua will have its own legal identity with all the corresponding rights, duties and liabilities of a legal person.

“The approach of granting legal personality to a river is unique … it responds to the view of the iwi of the Whanganui river which has long recognised Te Awa Tupua through its traditions, customs and practice.”