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The morning of March 16; a new sun rises over New Zealand. City slickers begin their daily commutes. Farmers usher their herds to the milking shed. All seems business as usual. But Te Awa Tupua (the Whanganui River) has woken up a new person — at least in the eyes of the law.
This is the dawn of the Te Awa Tupua (Whanganui River Claims Settlement) Bill. It marks the close of a 160-year long settlement dispute between Te Iwi Whanganui and the Crown, the longest running in our history.
What is extraordinary and even revolutionary about this bill is that it recognises Te Awa Tupua as a legal person. With personhood comes the river’s own identity and the corresponding rights, duties, and liabilities of a legal person.
At first this concept seems puzzling. But the law has long assigned personalities to companies, trusts, and sovereign states. However, the designation of a natural resource as a legal person is a world first.
It is a Māori perspective, rather than a Western view, which is ubiquitous throughout the bill. The law now recognises that Te Awa Tupua is not just a river. She is a physical, spiritual life force and a living ancestor of Te Whanganui iwi.
The relationship between iwi and river is not one of use but one of existence. The iwi and the river share “an inalienable connection,” says the bill, for it is the water that sustains and supports the wellbeing of the community and vice versa. As the common iwi saying goes “I am the river and the river is me.”
Te Awa Tupua is further described as indivisible and whole. From her first inklings in Tongariro to her mouth into the Tasman Sea, rights of personhood now extend along 271km of flowing water.
As a legal person, Te Awa Tupua now has a legal voice. She will assert her rights through Te Pou Tupua (“the human face of the river”), an office consisting of two representatives, one chosen by iwi with interests in the river, and one chosen by the Crown.
It is likely that this bill will be used as a mechanism to hold polluters accountable.
Legal action may be brought against those who choke her with agricultural sewage, suck her dry for irrigation, poison her with nitrates, and smother her with sediments. Furthermore, as the law views iwi and river as one, abuse against the river can be interpreted as a direct assault against the rights of iwi, opening another avenue of legal remedies.
If we are serious about solving environmental problems, we must align policy and law with a Māori perspective of the natural world. We must move away from a model of ownership and management of natural resources, to a recognition that these are sacred living entities. Perhaps we ought to scrap the term “natural resources” as it emphasises mere utility to us, rather than their essential value.
We must understand that the health of our communities is directly and intrinsically linked to the health of the world around us. Let us possess the wisdom that if we protect and nurture the environment, she will do the same for us. It follows that we should consider environmental degradation as an abuse of our personal rights and insist that the cost of degradation is borne by those responsible.
It seems that we are drifting in the right direction. A valuable precedent is now at hand. Its reach extends not only to other iwi, but indigenous communities internationally. We are abiding by our commitments under Te Tiriti o Waitangi, particularly the principles of active protection and partnership. There is hope that effective solutions to our environmental problems are just around the bend.