The Whanganui River in New Zealand.

New Zealand: The Power of a Lawsuit

Sarah Bardeen
Wednesday, March 28, 2018

You don’t have to change your constitution to protect a river. Often, existing legislation can be used to win permanent protections for a river. Recently, river advocates in New Zealand and Colombia have used lawsuits to win rights – including the right of personhood – for their rivers. 

Rights of Personhood

Much has been made of the Whanangui River in New Zealand, which was famously given the rights of personhood in 2017. But how was this landmark event actually achieved, and what does it mean?

The Whanangui is New Zealand’s longest navigable river, and it was traditionally managed by the iwi and hapu Maori subtribes that lived along it. This norm eroded during colonial times, despite the existence of an 1840 treaty that established the tribes’ right to manage the river. The tribes took their case to court, bringing repeated ownership claims between the years of 1938 and 1962. (Some called the 2017 decision the resolution of the longest-running lawsuit in the country’s history.) A ruling in 1962 struck down the Maori rights of ownership.

The Maori did not back down. In 1988, a trust board was established to settle all the outstanding claims of the Whanangui Iwi over the river. Over a decade later, a tribunal found that the Treaty of Waitangi, signed in 1840, had indeed “guaranteed Whanganui Iwi rights to ownership, management, and control of the river.” 

The wheels of justice ground slowly, however. In 2003, the Whanangui Iwi and the New Zealand government agreed to negotiate a settlement, but the two parties didn’t reach agreement on the terms of the settlement until 2014. In 2017, the New Zealand Parliament passed the Te Awa Tupui (Whanangui River Claims Settlement) Bill into law. 

The law recognizes “the Whanganui River as an indivisible and living whole, incorporating all its physical and meta-physical elements,” covering the entire stretch “from mountains to the sea,” as also “all tributaries, streams, and other natural watercourses that flow continuously or intermittently into (the river)... within the Whanganui River catchment; and all lakes and wetlands connected continuously or intermittently.” It also recognizes the worldview of the Iwi indigenous peoples who live along the river, whose relationship to the river is encapsulated in this phrase: “I am the river and the river is me.”

Two guardians – one state-appointed, one chosen by the Whanangui Iwi – will look after the wellbeing of the river. While we’ve yet to see the outcomes of this new conception of the rights of the river, the move marks a major win for indigenous peoples, and an inspiring tale of persistence across three centuries of colonization.

Read the Te Awa Tupui (Whanangui River Claims Settlement) Bill.

Photo: The Whanganui River is a major river in the North Island of New Zealand. Photo courtesy of Felix Engelhardt via Wikimedia Commons.