Indigenous Peoples

New Zealand, Maori’s sacred river gets same legal rights as a human being

Il fiume Whanganui, ritenuto sacro dai Maori, ottiene dopo una lunghissima battaglia legale personalità giuridica.

A Maori legend has it that the Whanganui River in the North Island, New Zealand, was formed when Mount Taranaki, after fighting against Mount Tongariro over Mount Pihanga, retreated to the sea leaving the central plateau for the coast and carving the land. So, Mount Tongariro filled the rift with fresh water, giving life to the Whanganui River. Whanganui River means a lot to Maori people: they consider it sacred and identify themselves in it as it was one of the main settlements of the Whanganui Iwi tribe. The Maori consider themselves part of the universe, equal to mountains, rivers and seas. They thus see their river in the same way as a living being.

Tribù Maori
The Whanganui River is the world’s first waterway to be granted legal personality © Chris Jackson/Getty Images

A victory for the Maori people

From now on, the river will be considered a living entity under New Zealand’s legislation. In fact, an unprecedented verdict granted the Whanganui River legal personality, which means it will have the same legal rights as a human being. The legal battle that allowed achieving such result was the country’s longest as it started more than 140 years ago. The river will be now protected in court by two representatives, one chosen by the Whanganui Iwi tribe and the other nominated by the government.

Maori sul fiume Whanganui
The Whanganui River is New Zealand’s third longest river and the Whanganui Iwi tribe considers it an ancestor © Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

The Whanganui River is a member of the tribe

The recognition came on 15 March thanks to an improvement of the Waitangi treaty, first signed in 1840 by a representative of the British Crown and the representatives of Maori tribes of the North Island. Hundreds of tribal representatives wept with joy “because we consider the river an ancestor and always have,” said Gerrard Albert, the lead negotiator for the Whanganui Iwi tribe. “We have fought to find an approximation in law so that all others can understand that from our perspective treating the river as a living entity is the correct way to approach it, as in indivisible whole.”

Cerimonia Maori
The Whanganui River extends for 290 kilometres, from its spring on Mount Tongariro to the Tasman Sea © Chris Jackson/Getty Images

The fact that the river has been granted legal personality means that all damages made to the river will be treated equal to any damages to the Whanganui Iwi tribe. “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 Attorney-General Christopher Finlayson.

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