Native Affairs Summer Series - Whanganui river to be recognised as a person

By Iulia Leilua

The Whanganui River has always been considered a tupuna – a living being – by those connected to the awa. Shortly, though, it’s set to become the first river in the world to gain legal recognition as a ‘person’, with its own legal rights. The bill will have its second reading in parliament tomorrow. 

Flowing from the western flanks of Mt Ruapehu and Tongariro into Whanganui, the river claim is Aotearoa’s longest running legal case that began 150 years ago.  At the heart of the proposed settlement bill, called Te Awa Tupua, is the legal recognition of the Whanganui River as a person, with its own legal rights and personality.

But to those connected to the awa, it’s always been their tupuna.

 “It’s always been a living being for us. It’s sustained us, spiritually, physically and it’s been a food source and every essence of us as a people,” says Dianah Ngarogo, a local who runs an adventure business. Down the river.

It’s an abstract concept but the Whanganui river will soon have two jointly representative, or Pou tupua – one nominated by the crown and one by the iwi and will be legally recognised as both a physical and spiritual being.  The Bill was introduced to Parliament and had its first reading in May 2016.  It  was then referred to the Māori Affairs Select Committee which received and heard submissions.  The Committee has now provided its report and the second reading is scheduled for tomorrow. 

Gerrard Albert led the technical side of the negotiation for the Whanganui settlement and has been part of a team that fought to recognise the river as an individual tupuna He says this is a way to protect their precious resource.

“The river has always been central to our identity because it has its own mauri. Establishing it in law as a legal person supports and validates that.”