A river in New Zealand has become the first in the world to be recognised as a living entity with the legal status of a person after a 170-year battle by the local Maori people.
The nation’s parliament passed a bill to allow Whanganui River –known by the Maoris as Te Awa Tupua - to represent its own interests and advocate on its own behalf.
The third-largest river in New Zealand, the Whanganui runs approximately 321 km from the interior mountains in the Hawkes Bay region of northern New Zealand, south until it merges with the Tasman Sea.
It will be represented by two nominees - one appointed by the Maori community, or Iwi, and one appointed by the government.
The new status of the river means if someone abused or harmed it the law now sees no differentiation between harming the tribe or harming the river because they are one and the same.
The approach of granting legal personality to a river is unique. Te Awa Tupua will have its own legal identity with all the corresponding rights, duties and liabilities of a legal person.
While the Whanganui is the first river in the world to be granted personhood, it follows the former Te Urewera national park in New Zealand, which was granted the same status in 2014 through the Te Urewera Act.
The local community has fought for recognition of its relationship with the river since the 1850s, including a legal battle that has lasted about 80 years and has been the longest-running litigation in New Zealand’s history.
The parliament’s bill will end the battle and includes £45 million as financial redress and £17 million for a fund to protect the river.
In the precolonial era, the Whanganui River was a vital communication route for Maori people and it navigability attracted large-scale settlement in the Whanganui River valley. When colonists arrived, it was the most densely populated part of what is today called the North Island. For these reasons, the area is rich in Maori history and culture.