Since 1840, when the New Zealand indigenous Māori ceded sovereignty to British colonists in the Treaty of Waitangi, the Whanganui iwi have tried and failed to have New Zealand’s third longest river acknowledged as a “living whole” with its own rights and autonomy, rather than treating it from a perspective of ownership and management. The iwi—like the indigenous peoples of Canada, who view water as alive (Nibi onje biimaadiiziiwin)—are spiritually connected to the river and its water. The new law now resonates with the iwi worldview of honoring the mountains, rivers and seas as one whole of which we are all a part.
“Water is a taonga of huge importance to Iwi and enhancing the health and wellbeing of our waterways is a priority for many Iwi,” wrote Mike Grace, Māori laison in 2010. “Māori often consider their personal health and the health of the Iwi to be closely linked to the health of their water bodies.”
The iwi’s failed attempts for over 140 years to petition the courts to have the river declared a living being have finally met with success.
When New Zealand law declared the Whanganui River a legal person on March 15th, members of the iwi in the gallery of parliament broke into a ten-minute song of celebration. Two guardians will act for the river, one appointed by the government and one by the iwi.
This settlement follows on the heels of another remedy of a treaty breach with the Tuhoe iwi: that of making the forested hills of Te Urewera a person for legal purposes in 2014.
Prior to that, on September 2008 Equador became the first country to recognize the rights of Nature in its Constitution. “The new Ecuadorian Constitution includes a Chapter: Rights for Nature. Rather than treating nature as property under the law, Rights for Nature articles acknowledge that nature in all its life forms has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles. And we— the people—have the legal authority to enforce these rights on behalf of ecosystems. The ecosystem itself can be named as the defendant,” writes the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature.
This is not unprecedented or even strange from a legal standpoint: companies, foundations and organizations around the world have legal rights and responsibilities independent of the people who staff them. And they do this for the same reason that a river or natural environment would be designated with personal rights. Such a legal status provides an effective means to procure environmental justice and put real protection into place.
Days after the New Zealand law was passed, an Indian court assigned two of India’s largest and most sacred rivers, the Ganges and Yamuna, the legal status of a person. As with the Whanganui settlement, the Indian court assigned legal “parents” to protect and conserve their waters. According to local lawyers, this allows a river’s defender to proceed more easily with prosecution—no longer needing to prove that discharges into them will harm anyone; because polluting the waters would now be a crime against the river itself.
Classes of Water according to the Māori:
- Wai-ora: (pure water). This is water in its purest form. It is used in rituals topurify and sanctify and has the power to give life, sustain wellbeing and counteract evil. Waiora also means health.
- Wai-Māori: (freshwater). This refers to ordinary water which runs free or unrestrained and has no sacred associations.
- Wai-kino: (polluted). The mauri of the water has been altered through pollution or corruption and has the potential to do harm to humans.
- Wai-mate: (dead water). This class of water has lost its mauri and is dead. It is dangerous to humans because it can cause illness or misfortune. Geographically it refers to sluggish water, stagnant or back water. Some tribes refer to it as waikawa.
- Wai-tai: (salt or water from the ocean). This term also refers to rough or angry water as in surf, waves or sea tides.
- Wai-tangi: (grieving waters). A river or part of a river which through some mishap has caused death, much pain and grieving to the tribe.
- Wai-ariki: (hot springs or curative waters). The term ariki means “chief” in English and refers to the chiefs or patriarchs of all water.
Ainge Roy, Eleanor. 2017. “New Zealand river granted same legal status rights as human being.” The Guardian, March 16th. Online.
Grace, Mike. 2010. “Wai Māori—Māori values in Water—Greater Wellington Regional Council Report 10.449; ENV/31/01/09”. PDF August 24, 2010. Online.
The Economist. 2017. “New Zealand declares a river a person.” The Economist, March 25th. Online.
Nina Munteanu is an ecologist, limnologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.