August 20, 2022

I came across and AP article in the back of my paper yesterday about a river in New Zealand that was given “personhood” status.  Five years ago, the Whanganui River was recognized as a living person in a groundbreaking New Zealand law.  For many who live along its banks, the official recognition validated the deep spiritual connection they have with the river.  They continue to feel the draw of its waters each day, whether to fish, canoe, or refresh their lives.  Geoff Hipango, who manages mental health and addiction services for a tribal provider, says it will take some time for the river’s health to be fully restored but it’s now on the right track.  The river’s status is a win for his tribe and the wider community, with all wanting to see the river’s health improved for future generations.  Hipango says it has been a privilege to see the river gain personhood after all the hard work of his elders.  “Really it was only embodying what our people have always acknowledged and lived by.  It’s just that the law caught up.”

When I looked online, I found the Whanganui River is a major river in the North Island of New Zealand.  The Whanganui is the country’s third-longest river at 180 Miles (290 km).  Much of the land on either side of the river’s upper reaches are part of the Whanganui National Park, though the river itself is not part of the park.  The river begins on the northern slopes of Mount Tongariro, an active volcano on the central plateau close to Lake Rotoaira.  This navigable river flows from the volcanic mountains, through the bush-clad hill country, and past historic small settlements before reaching the coast at Whanganui.  While the river has been impacted by modern development and farming, the largest impact is ongoing eruptions from the nearby volcanos.  In the 1970’s a minor eruption from Mount Ruapehu spilled some of the contents from the Ruapehu Crater Lake.  The toxic water entered the Whanganui River and killed much of the aquatic life downstream.  Dead eels as large as 18 pounds (8.2 kg) and trout just over 5 pounds (2.3 kg) were washed up along the riverbanks.  The tributary Whakapapa River had fish losses due to a lahar (pyroclastic mud flow) from Ruapehu in April 1975.

The river has special and spiritual importance for Māori, who call it Te awa tupua.  It was the home for a large proportion of Māori villages in pre-European times and is regarded as a special treasure (taonga).  The river has been one of the most fiercely contested regions of the country in claims before the Waitangi Tribunal for the return of tribal lands.  The Whanganui River claim is the longest-running legal case in New Zealand’s history with petitions and court action beginning in the 1930’s.  More recently the Waitangi Tribunal hearings began in the 1990’s, the ongoing Tieke Marae land occupation since 1993, and the highly publicized Moutoa Gardens occupation in 1995.  An agreement was reached on August 30, 2012, that entitled the Whanganui River to a legal identity.  This was the first such designation in the world, and on March 15, 2017, the settlement was passed into law by the New Zealand Parliament.  Chris Finlayson, the Minister for Treaty of Waitangi Negotiations, said the river would have an identity “with all the corresponding rights, duties and liabilities of a legal person”.  The river will be represented by two officials, one from the Māori and the other from the government.

THOUGHTS:  When I learned the Whanganui River had been granted the rights as a person under New Zealand law it made me wonder what those rights might be.  It turns out there are seven specific rights granted to citizens.  You can live in New Zealand indefinitely (seems a given), can travel overseas with a New Zealand passport (seems unlikely), can vote (again, may be tough), can stand for parliament or local government (can a river stand?), can have full access to an education (hard for the waters to sit still),  can represent New Zealand in sports (water sports?), and to have full economic and social rights.  It seems the last right of personhood was what may have been intended.  Now it is up to the representatives from the Māori and the government to agree on what is best for the Whanganui, and its people.  Act for all.  Change is coming and it starts with you.

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