Whanganui: A River with Rights

Nautilus staff recently visited the Whanganui River valley on the North Island of New Zealand to learn more about its new status as the world’s first river with the rights of a person. The Whanganui River is the third largest in New Zealand (known as Aotearoa by the indigenous Maori people), traveling some 180 miles from its source on the slopes of Mt Tongariro in the center of the North Island to the Tasman Sea.

The Whanganui River valley was once one of the most densely inhabited areas of New Zealand before European settlement and remains rich in Maori culture and history. The river provided a navigable route to the interior and was a key transport route in the 1800s and early 1900s. The Whanganui watershed supported a diverse range of industries and settlements, especially in the lower reaches where the City of Wanganui was established (once the fifth largest town in New Zealand and still a significant regional center).

During the early years of settlement, there were numerous conflicts between Maori iwi (tribes) and colonial settlers, often caused by disputes over land and water rights. The rights of the Whanganui iwi to access, use and protect the river were never clearly or comprehensively defined.

The Whanganui iwi petitioned for more than a century for recognition of the indivisibility of their relationship with the river: “I am the river and the river is me“ is a local proverb that sums up their interconnectedness with the river.

After decades of reviews and hearings and small steps such as renaming the river to its original spelling (from Wanganui) in 1991, the broad principles of a more comprehensive agreement were defined in 2012. Legal scholar Brendan Kennedy describes the agreement as Tu-tohu Whakatupua. It states that Ma-ori values of the Whanganui River be central to a final settlement in which the Crown will appoint one guardian, Whanganui Iwi will appoint one guardian, and both guardians will act together for the benefit of the river.

If the guardians have to protect the Indigenous property value associated with the river, then they must promote and secure the river as more than just a natural resource. In other words, the guardians must also promote and secure the spiritual and cultural rights of the river— not simply the physical and ecological rights.

After further negotiation and revision as part of a wider review of Maori treaty rights, in March 2017, the New Zealand parliament passed a law that acknowledges the Whanganui River as a legal person. The law also proposed a settlement of USD56M to compensate the Whanganui iwi for past abuse and set up a fund of USD320M to enhance the health and wellbeing of the river.

Importantly the settlement also establishes a shared management framework that will promote and enshrine Maori values in making decisions about the future of the river. Such recognition is precedent setting. The Whanganui is the first river on the world to be given personhood status and it has already generated ripple effects on governance of rivers and indigenous rights globally; the Indian government granted similar rights to the Ganges and Yamuna Rivers within weeks of the New Zealand law.

Many global rivers share a similar cultural, economic, social and ecological significance as the Whanganui, including a history of conflict between indigenous and non-indigenous values. Much is still to be determined about how the new law will be applied, but will be interesting to observe how the Whanganui model informs and shapes global river governance over the coming decades.