Yes you didn’t read the title wrong, New Zealand has just made its third Longest river a legal person. While this sounds crazy, actually when you dig a little deeper its actually makes sense.
The river in question is Whanganui River, New Zealand’s third-longest and a new law has just made it that the river is a legal person in the sense that it can incur debts, own property but more importantly petition the courts. Its not the first time New Zealand has done this, in 2014 Te Urewera an area of forested hills in the north-east of the country that was a national park became a legal person.
Locals have been joking about the river might vote, buy a beer, how old it is or be charged with murder is a swimmer drowns.
Its now a joking matter why on March 15th the law was passed. Its stems from disputes over the Treaty of Waitangi by which New Zealand’s indigenous Maori ceded sovereignty to British colonialists in 1840. The treaty was supposed to have protected Maori rights and property; it was observed mainly in the breach.
In recent years the government has tried to negotiate settlements for breaches of the treaty with different Maori iwi, or tribes. For the Whanganui iwi, the idea of the river as person is nothing new. The iwi professes a deep spiritual connection to the Whanganui: as a local proverb has it, “I am the river and the river is me.” The law acknowledges the river as a “living whole”, rather than trying to carve it up, putting to rest an ownership dispute that has dragged on for 140 years. When it was passed members of the iwi in the gallery of parliament broke into a ten-minute song of celebration.
In practice, two guardians will act for the river, one appointed by the government and one by the iwi. Mr Finlayson, the minister in charge of negotiations tied to the Treaty of Waitangi, hopes the change will help bring those who do environmental damage to the river to book. Under the settlement the government will also pay the iwi NZ$80m ($56m) as compensation for past abuses and set up a fund of NZ$30m to enhance the “health and well-being” of the river. It is one of 82 deals that aim to remedy breaches of the treaty, including one with the Tuhoe iwi that made Te Urewera into a person.
Days after the law passed, an Indian court declared two of the biggest and most sacred rivers in India, the Ganges and Yamuna, to be people too. Making explicit reference to the Whanganui settlement, the court assigned legal “parents” to protect and conserve their waters. Local lawyers think the ruling might help fight severe pollution: the rivers’ defenders will no longer have to prove that discharges into them harm anyone, since any sullying of the waters will now be a crime against the river itself. There is no doubt that of the 1.3bn-odd people in India, the Ganges and the Yamuna must be among the most downtrodden.
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