The Whanganui River on New Zealand’s North Island has long been considered sacred by the Maori people of the region. Now, a settlement that has ended a historic struggle and has sparked widespread celebrations has given the river an extremely unique status.
The river, which is considered to be an ancestor by the Maori people, has been granted legal status and can now be represented in court. It will be represented by two guardians on behalf of the tribe and the crown.
“I know the initial inclination of some people will say it’s pretty strange to give a natural resource a legal personality,” said New Zealand’s Treaty Negotiations Minister Chris Finlayson.
“But it’s no stranger than family trusts, or companies or incorporated societies.”
“The reason we have taken this approach is because we consider the river an ancestor and always have,” explained Gerrard Albert, the lead negotiator for the Whanganui iwi (tribe).
“We have fought to find an approximation in law so that all others can understand that from our perspective treating the river as a living entity is the correct way to approach it, as in indivisible whole, instead of the traditional model for the last 100 years of treating it from a perspective of ownership and management.”
Now that the river has been granted all the rights, duties, liabilities, and privileges of a legal person, anyone who harms the river directly or indirectly could potentially face serious criminal penalties.
The development of international environmental law over the years has led to protection mechanisms for rivers and other water sources, but this is a unique approach. Intergovernmental organizations such as the United Nations and the OECD have led the ratification of treaties and framed guidelines for various issues related to water courses and water governance, often with the objective of promoting state cooperation for the integrated management of trans-boundary rivers.
To name one example, the Indus River Treaty between India and Pakistan, brokered by what was then the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (now the World Bank), locked in an agreement regarding the permitted usage and distribution of the rivers around the historic Indus River basin. That treaty has faced legal scrutiny, often with political motivation, including public interest litigation in an Indian court recently.
However, the nature of the personality conferred upon the Whanganui and the reasoning and the negotiations behind the decision make this a markedly different development with the potential to be influential elsewhere.
Clarity regarding the exact scope and meaning of the rights conferred on the river will only come through judicial interpretation by New Zealand courts.
Various rivers are considered to be “sacred” and historically important in different cultures. A famous example would be the Ganges in India, with successive government over the years spending significant sums of money for its restoration. India even has a minister handling the portfolio of “Ganga rejuvenation” in the current cabinet. However, the river’s conservation continues to be threatened, with pollution of the river being a major concern in a country with a high proportion of people infected by water-borne diseases.
Granting a river legal status as a person could jumpstart conservation efforts. Along with the agreement, a fund of millions of New Zealand dollars has been created for the conservation of the river and to create a legal framework for its protection.
Whether this decision will provide legal models for other countries remains to be seen.
Kiran Mohandas Menon is a lawyer currently based in Madrid, Spain. His analysis of various issues related to Public International Law has been published in various international publications.