Whanganui_River, new zealand, wikimedia.org

In March 2017, New Zealand settled an almost 160-year long dispute with their indigenous Maori culture to grant the Whanganui River, one of the country’s longest rivers, a new right–the equal right afforded a human being. (photo – wikimedia.org)

Drawing on a body of law that has been gaining ground, NZ has created an environmental standard granting mechanisms for nature justice in federated legislation. This trend, with other countries following a similar path, has been coined “wild law.”

[Trailblazing in the Southern hemisphere, NZ is one of a growing minority of nations linking resource use with social and historical injustice.]


The Maori, the Crown, and the River

_whanganui river, new zealand ,Maori_rowing-wikicommonsInhabiting NZ (in the Maori language: Aotearoa) since the late 1200s, the Maori originally came from Polynesia. Oral tradition depicts their cultural relationship with the natural resources of land, water, and wind, personifying them as brothers, sisters, and ancestors. In particular, the Whanganui  River “is still seen as both an ancestor and a source of material and spiritual sustenance.” See teara.govt.nz.

In 1840,  representatives of the British crown and 500 tribal, or iwi, Maori chiefs signed the Treaty of Waitangi. Establishing New Zealand as a colony of Great Britain, it granted the Maori exclusive rights over lands, estates, forests, fisheries, and other properties while giving the UK exclusivity to trade with their population. Soon after the Treaty was signed, however, the river was sold in a contested purchase. This purchase led to “ the longest-running legal case in New Zealand history,”  finally culminating in the contemporary settlement granting human rights to the Whanganui River.


What does it mean to be an Empowered River?

india-river-gangesWhile representatives of the NZ government do acknowledge that this ruling may seem unconventional, they believe that they have solid precedent. Recent trends could draw an international comparison to the US’s endowment of “personhood” to corporations, granting them through legal precedent the right to sue as individuals.

Also, often as a result of the advocacy of indigenous populations, other nations have taken actions that mirror those of NZ. Days after this ruling passed, India enacted similar legislation to endow the Ganges River and the Yamuna tributary with the rights of a human. Bolivia and Ecuador have gone even further, amending their respective constitutions to grant equal rights to nature.

Widely, wild law has been applied to regulate behavior in an effort to ensure the functioning of the whole Earth ecosystem in the long-run.

So the river has human rights, but is this a ruling merely for show?

This settlement has implementation plans connected to it. The Whanganui River has been given two representatives to act in its stead with the best interests of health and vitality in mind. One will be appointed by the government, the other by the Maori.


Why push so hard for human rights  to be granted to a water resource?

_whanganui river, new zealand ,visit ruapehu


For every argument, there will be a counter. As Wesley J. Smith contends:” in actuality, rights haven’t been given to a water course, by [sic] human beings who will impose their views as if they were those of the river….it is all completely unnecessary if the goal is environmental protection and conservation, which can be well sustained through laws and protected designations.”  (photo – visit ruapehu)

Arguing over semantics merely serves to derail the conversation and any meaningful action. As climate change activist, native Inuk, and Nobel Peace Prize Nominee Sheila Watt-Cloutier attests, “the politicians and the economists…silo everything as though everything [was] disconnected from one another.” The indigenous peoples are the ones that know that they are not; like the food web that we top, it is in fact all interconnected. See cbc.ca.

The health of our collective humanity belongs solidly in the ecosystem we rely on, not separate or superior to it. Objectively, our goal should not be “environmental protection and conservation” on par with the status quo. This has afforded us a planet most dearly out of balance and not at all “well sustained.” Here, Smith is unknowingly placing his finger on the pulse of this shift–it is cultural.  To align our value system more closely to the one that nature imposes necessitates changing our cultural heritage and/or adopting some ways of another, as uncomfortable as it may feel at times.


A question of cultural AND environmental justice

radio new zealand, _whanganui river, new zealandThe wisdom of granting this river equal standing to a human creates a parallel between environmental justice and cultural justice. By granting the Whanganui River the status of a human being in New Zealand law, the powers-that-be not only ensured greater mechanisms for protection (from exploitation, mismanagement, pollution, etc.) they have granted Maori values and beliefs an uncontested place in federal law. While the Maori have always believed that the river is alive and tantamount to an ancestor, now NZ law reflects that value instead of imposing a differing one.(photo – radio new zealand)

This Whanganui River settlement can be read in the larger story of a colonizing nation making reparations for its cultural imposition. In fact, in addition to the intricacies of river-person rights that this settlement creates, “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.” See the economist.com.

This agreement is a step towards de-marginalization, placing indigenous values (at the heart of which lies sustainability) in power. It is a victory for environmental justice to see a nation change laws to reflect the values of all their peoples, the Whanganui River now included.

Environmental justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. (Source: US Environmental Protection Agency)”

By Caitlin Flannery, contributor to Blue Ocean Network


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