Legal Rights for the Whanganui

 In Blog, Uncategorized

My son and I recently traveled to New Zealand. We had three things we wanted to experience: 

1) a first-hand glimpse of the fierce and glorious Maori haka

2) a wander through Hobbiton, Peter Jackson’s interpretation of Tolkien’s classic, and 

3) to swim in the sacred waters of the Whanganui River. 

New Zealanders, aka Kiwis, viewed the first two as fairly typical tourist goals; but the third appeared strange, and elicited questions or quizzical stares or both. 

I’ll explain. The Whanganui is the first river in the world to gain the same legal rights as a person. Under federal New Zealand law it is held as “a legal being in its own right.”

This legal development sets some major precedents for bridging the legal and ethical relationship between humans and the non-human world. Especially now amidst a growing acceptance that we have entered into the Anthropocene – a new epoch in which nothing on the planet exists beyond human influence. 

The fact that the earth has lost 90% of species, primarily in the past 200 years since human industrialization, demonstrates both the impact of the Anthropocene and the limited status the non-human world has within it. 

By giving not only a non-human, but more dramatically, a non-sentient fluvial system the same rights as personhood, the Maori people and the New Zealand judiciary are changing this.

The Maori concept of Te Awa Tupua articulates how the physical and spiritual elements of the river and surrounding area are intertwined with the health, identity and well-being of the people. The Maori, similar to other indigenous cultures, consider the river and forest their ancestors, abiding both a responsibility and a privilege to care for them as family members. The Maori have fought for the protection of their culture and the land since initial contact with the English. The 1840 signing of the Treaty of Waitangi uniquely ensured the Maori were given the same rights as British subjects. Yet the river has been used as a working river, with steamboats and timber moving to and from the interior to its it mouth at the Tasman Sea. Whanganui became a tourist attraction among the wealthy in the 20th century, due to the fact that it was lined by Maori kaingas or villages.

After generations of trying to explain Te Awa Tupua, and fighting for their river ancestor’s rights, finally in 2017 the Whanganui River was granted the legal rights of a person. This is New Zealand’s second natural resource after Te Urewera to be given its own legal identity. Claim to such status grants forests and rivers protection treating them as an ‘indivisible whole’ beyond modern models of ownership and management. 

Indigenous understanding of humans as stewards of the natural world is increasingly enshrined in legal frameworks such as the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Indigenous insights are beginning to forge new pathways to more holistic and systems-based viewpoints. Thirty years after the 1992 Earth Summit in which the planet and future generations became a policy concern and challenge, the 2012 “The Future We Want” Summit explicitly recognized the need to meet the needs of present and future generations while also promoting harmony with nature. 

Whether or not ascribing nature and natural areas legal standing of personhood is the way to promote this type of harmony is yet to be determined. However, the Te Awa Tupua marks a unique shift in the court of law and a profound shift in human consciousness about how to think about and treat the non-human world. It marshals a considerable challenge – ensuring people are living well and within the planetary means now and into the future. 

How the practice of upholding these legal rights unfolds is less about the outcome and more about the process. I expect this process will help to advance the discourse and consciousness about our relationship to the non-human world and our duty to the planet upon which we are all dependent. 

This, I told the perplexed kiwis, is the reason why my son and I made the trek from Canada to swim in the Whanganui River; to languish in the sacred waters of the Maori and to pay tribute to a profound piece of human history.

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