10 September 2012

Riparine Personhood

The New Zealand Herald reports that the Whanganui River will
become an legal entity and have a legal voice under a preliminary agreement signed between Whanganui River iwi and the Crown tonight. This is the first time a river has been given a legal identity. 
A spokesman for the Minister of Treaty Negotiations said Whanganui River will be recognised as a person when it comes to the law - "in the same way a company is, which will give it rights and interests". The agreement was signed on behalf of Whanganui iwi by Brendan Puketapu of the Whanganui River Maori Trust, which represents a group of iwi along the river, and the Crown in Parliament this evening.  
Under the agreement the river is given legal status under the name Te Awa Tupua - two guardians, one from the Crown and one from a Whanganui River iwi, will be given the role of protecting the river. An agreement between the Crown and local iwi on what the values will be in protecting the river are yet to be decided. ... 
Minister for Treaty for Waitangi Negotiations Christopher Finlayson said the signing was an historic event. "Whanganui River iwi have sought to protect the river and have their interests acknowledged by the Crown through the legal system since 1873. They pursued this objective in one of New Zealand's longest running court cases. 
"Today's agreement which recognises the status of the river as Te Awa Tupua (an integrated, living whole) and the inextricable relationship of iwi with the river is a major step towards the resolution of the historical grievances of Whanganui iwi and is important nationally." 
"The agreement does not signify the end of the settlement, but it is a significant step towards settlement. Matters of detail and additional redress will be to be negotiated between the parties," said Mr Finlayson. 
"Whanganui Iwi also recognise the value others place on the river and wanted to ensure that all stakeholders and the river community as a whole are actively engaged in developing the long-term future of the river and ensuring its wellbeing," said Mr Finlayson.
The media release regarding the agreement indicates that it includes -
  • Recognition of the status of the Whanganui River (including its tributaries) as Te Awa Tupua, an integrated, living whole from the mountains to sea; 
  • Recognition of Te Awa Tupua as a legal entity, reflecting the view of the River as a living whole and enabling the River to have legal standing and an independent voice; 
  • Vesting of the Crown-owned parts of the river-bed in the name of Te Awa Tupua; Appointment of two persons (one by the Crown and the other by the River iwi) to a guardianship role – Te Pou Tupua - to act on behalf of Te Awa Tupua and protect its status and health and wellbeing; 
  • Development of a set of Te Awa Tupua values, recognising the intrinsic characteristics of the river and providing guidance to decision-makers; and 
  • Development of a Whole of River Strategy by collaboration between iwi, central and local government, commercial and recreational users and other community groups. The strategy will identify issues for the river, consider ways of addressing them, and recommend actions. The goal of the strategy will be to ensure the long-term environmental, social, cultural and economic health and wellbeing of the river.
For an academic perspective on personhood for NZ rivers see the dissertation [PDF] by James Douglas Kahotea Morris on Affording New Zealand rivers legal personality: a new vehicle for achieving Maori aspirations in co-management?