Rivers Are People, Too


Evan Goldberg/Flickr
The Whanganui River in New Zealand, which recently gained legal status as a citizen.

In August of last year, the Whanganui River gained its citizenship. Under New Zealand law, the third-longest river in the country will be recognized as a person “in the same way a company is, which will give it rights and interests,” according to a spokesman for the Minister of Treaty Negotiations. This is the first time a legal identity has been conferred on a single river, though in 2008 Ecuador passed a similar rule to give its forests, lakes, and waterways rights on par with humans in order to ensure protection from harmful practices.

Since 1873, the Whanganui River iwi, an indigenous group with strong cultural and historical ties to the waterway, have pushed for legal protections for the river. Though not conclusive, it is hoped that recognition of personhood will mark the beginning of the end of one of New Zealand’s longest running court cases.

Under the settlement, the river will be protected by representatives from both the iwi and the national government, with each group providing legal custodians to represent the Whanganui’s best interests. The river’s legal name is Te Awa Tupua, an indigenous Maori phrase. “There is no literal translation of Te Awa Tupua in English, but it embraces the spiritual aspects of the river and the intrinsic interrelationship of people with it,” according to the Whanganui Iwi Maori Trust Board.

The full settlement of the case will eventually include monetary compensation for historical claims.