Whanganui River is one of the major rivers in New Zealand; it is the country’s third longest river which passes through the northern part of the country. Although it seems to be almost unknown in world geography, this river has a strong importance in the Maori culture. It is worshipped as a sacred natural entity and it has a key role in Maori mythology. Among the Maori community it is called Te Awa Tupua, which means “a connected ecosystem” in the traditional language.
In March 2017 the river became famous as a result of a sentence from a New Zealand court. In perhaps the first case in history, it has been officially recognised as a living entity and likened to a human being. From the beginning of the 20th century the Whanganui river was a trade hub for the new European population and became a tourist attraction for foreigners. Maori people started to become concerned about its environmental and physical integrity and began a battle for its emancipation.
The one sentence from the court has ended a battle that has lasted 170 years. This legal battle is one of the most ancient in New Zealand history; its origins have roots in the 19th century when the law was set by the Waitangi agreement of 1840, signed by the Great Britain spokesmen and forty Maori tribal chiefs in the north of the island. According to the treaty, New Zealand became an English colony and the settlers declared that they would have to provide all the necessary protection to the river and to the Maori’s lands. But after this ruling, as the attorney general Chris Finlayson says, “Te Awa Tupua will have its own legal identity with all the corresponding rights, duties and liabilities of a legal person”.
In practice, this means that the river will be represented at legal proceedings by two lawyers, one chosen among the Maori community and the other from the lawyers in government.
This court’s decision has set a legal precedent for further changes in environmental law. Like Maori, Yanomami groups in Brazil are trying to protect their Amazonian forest, which they consider their home. In Botswana, Bushman tribes are known for their deep connection with their land and nature around them. Around the world, indigenous groups are battling for the protection of natural resources.
What is viewed in Western culture as simply a natural resource, or often as an economic resource, is considered a living entity from indigenous groups, suitable of the same protection as a human being. The New Zealand court decision may open a new chapter in the battle for environmental protection.