[JURIST] The New Zealand Parliament [government website] voted Wednesday to approve a law [materials] that grants the Whanganui River the legal rights of a person. According to the new law [text; PDF, in Maori], the river, or Te Awa Tupua as it is known to the local Maori people, is now recognized as "an indivisible and living whole, comprising the Whanganui River from the mountains to the sea, incorporating all its physical and metaphysical elements," and "is a legal person and has all the rights, powers, duties, and liabilities of a legal person." In addition, the law mandates that two guardians be assigned to "act and speak for and on behalf of" the river. One guardian will be appointed by Parliament, and the other by the local Maori tribe. Albert Gerrard, a lead negotiator for the Whanganui tribe [official website], called the 170-year legal fight for recognition a "long, hard battle." New Zealand Attorney General Chris Finlayson said [press release] the legal recognition is important to the local Maori people.
I know some people will say it's pretty strange to give a natural resource a legal personality, but it's no stranger than family trusts, or companies, or incorporated societies. The approach of granting legal personality to a river is unique. Te Awa Tupua will have its own legal identity with all the corresponding rights, duties and liabilities of a legal person.In the last decade, the New Zealand government and several Maori groups have negotiated settlements to resolve disputes that go back nearly two centuries. In 2008 the two sides signed a deed [JURIST report] worth nearly NZ $196 million to resolve certain indigenous claims concerning land taken by British settlers in the nineteenth century. Maori claims to the historical Central North Island forests are based on breaches of the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi [text] by the New Zealand government. The treaty established the sovereignty of the British crown in New Zealand but guaranteed Maori groups continued use of their land and natural resources. The Maori have fought for remedies [BBC report] for land loss and unequal treatment suffered pursuant to the Treaty since soon after its signing in 1840. Under the Treelords deal [Herald report], the government of New Zealand officially apologizes for breaches of the Treaty.