New Zealand River gains legal status of a person, ending 140 years battle

A river in New Zealand has gained the legal status of a person, complete with all the respective rights, duties and liabilities.

Updated: Mar 17, 2017 11:38 IST

The Whanganui River in New Zealand has become the first landmark in the world to be granted the same legal rights as that of a human being, following a 140-year struggle.

 Whanganui River

The river’s new legal identity comes with the passing of the Whanganui River Claims Settlement bill. The bill passed its third reading in New Zealand’s Parliament on 15 March 2017. It aims to establish a new legal framework for the river.

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Key Highlights

• The bill recognised the river as an indivisible, living whole from the mountains to the sea.

• The river is the first in the world to be granted all the rights, duties, liabilities and legal status of a person.

• The bill’s passing brought an end to the longest running litigation in the history of New Zealand. The people of Whanganui iwi have been fighting for the recognition of their relationship with the river since the 1870s.

• The settlement included a financial redress of $80 million as well as an additional $1 million contribution for establishing the river’s legal framework.

• Besides this, the crown would also be contributing a sum of $30 million for further betterment and well being of the river.

• The move followed the example used in the Tuhoe Settlement Bill that saw Te Urewera National Park gain the status of a legal entity in 2014.


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Commenting on the century-long fight, Gerrard Albert , the lead negotiator in the case, stated that the  river is a sacred landmark for the Maori Iwi tribe, they treat it as an ancestor and thus, they needed to find something that would help uphold its position.

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Speaking on the case, Treaty of Waitangi Negotiations Minister Christopher Finlayson stated that the approach of granting legal identity to a river was unique, as the legislation recognised the deep spiritual connection between the locals and the ancestral river and created a strong platform for the future of the river.

The new status means that from here on, any abuse or harm caused to the river will be viewed in the same light as harm caused to a human being. Besides this, two guardians will be appointed – one from the crown and one from the Whanganui iwi to act on the behalf of the river.

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• All the Maori tribes regard themselves as part of the universe, at par with the mountains, rivers and seas.

• The local tribe of Whanganui has been fighting for the recognition of the river as their ancestor for almost 140 years.

• The river is New Zealand's longest navigable river and so, it has got a rich history of human interactions.

• There were once more than 100 Maori villages along the river’s banks.

• The introduction of a riverboat service in 1891 made the river an ideal channel for the flourishing of tourism and trade.

• The trade and communication undertaken through the river reached as far as Wellington, Waikato, Taranaki, Taupo and the Bay of Plenty.


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