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I Am the River and the River is Me: The Implications of a River Receiving Personhood Status

When an agreement recently signed in Aotearoa (New Zealand) proposed the acknowledgement of the Whanganui River as a legal person, many saw it as an innovative resource management solution. Indigenous Peoples around the world often struggle with governments that do not recognize their view of the natural environment; when natural resources are involved, Indigenous worldviews are often in direct conflict with non-Indigenous notions of property ownership. Viewed in this light, the agreement is even more compelling—because it is an agreement to define
a natural resource according to the worldview of Maori, the Indigenous people of Aotearoa.

A Resource for Profit or Te Awa Tupua?
The natural resources in Aotearoa are often viewed through two different lenses: Maori and non-Maori. Honorable Peter Sharples, noted Maori academic and cabinet minister, describes these competing views best: “Holding a title to property, whether Crown or private, establishes a regime of rights—to capture, to exclude, to develop, to keep. Rangatiratanga (Maori sovereignty or absolute chieftainship) is asserted through the collective exercise of responsibilities— to protect, to conserve, to augment, and to enhance over time for the security of future generations. Both seek to increase value, but the question is, how do you value the resource? [By] the profit you can make? Or the taonga (treasure’s) contribution to the survival of the group?”

The answer, in this case, is the latter: the Whanganui River will be defined and governed by the Maori view of the river. Whanganui Iwi, the Indigenous people that possess rangatiratanga
over the Whanganui River, and the river itself will be considered a living, integrated whole, or Te Awa Tupua. This view encompasses more than chieftainship, however. As explained by the late Niko Tangaroa, a Maori elder, Whanganui Iwi have an interdependent relationship with the river: “The river and the land and its people are inseparable. And so if one is affected the other is affected also. The river is the heartbeat, the pulse of our people. . . . [If the river] dies, we die as a people. Ka mate te Awa, ka mate tatou te Iwi.” This unique relationship is not a concept that can be easily understood by non-Maori because its value exists outside of the profitgenerating notions of property.

According to Honorable Tariana Turia, a member of parliament who is affiliated with Ngati Apa/Wairiki, Nga Rauru, Tuwharetoa, and Whanganui Iwi, the Whanganui River has always been a protected tribal resource—so the Whanganui Iwi do not accept the argument that everyone and no one owns it. In fact, prior to signing the agreement with the Crown, Whanganui Iwi argued that assigning non-Maori ownership rights to the river were the only way that their unique relationship, identity, and rangatiratanga could be protected. So if Whanganui Iwi view the river differently from non-Maori, how did Iwi get the Crown to agree to define it as they always have, as Te Awa Tapua? Also, why did Whanganui Iwi agree to have their rangatiratanga protected through a
non-Maori guardianship model where the river is considered a legal entity? The answers, not surprisingly, are complex.

Defining the River According to the Worldview of Maori
Ma-ori chiefs and agents of the British monarchy began their official partnership when they signed the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840. The partnership continues between the Maori and the Crown today, though it is the Treaty’s principles that govern the duties and obligations of this partnership rather than its explicit text. Although these principles will inevitably change to reflect the transforming needs of the country, the courts have found that the Treaty’s principle of partnership imposes a duty of good faith and reasonable conduct between Maori and the Crown.

Additionally, the Crown has a duty to make informed decisions and to protect Maori property rights. The spirit of the Treaty also imposes the principle of redress, where the Crown is required to provide active and positive redress for past breaches of the Treaty. In such a case, the settlement process usually begins by the Maori filing a claim with the Waitangi Tribunal; then Maori negotiate with the Crown directly so that Maori can get compensation for proven breaches of Treaty principles. Whanganui Iwi have been engaged in this process for decades. As both parties
continue to negotiate a final settlement, the agreement recognizing the river as Te Awa Tapua is an important step forward.

Tu-tohu Whakatupua: A Cause for Cautious Optimism
The agreement that defines the Whanganui River as a legal entity, to be protected by appointed guardians, is titled Tu-tohu Whakatupua. It states that Ma-ori values of the Whanganui River be central to a final settlement in which the Crown will appoint one guardian, Whanganui Iwi will appoint one guardian, and both guardians will act together for the benefit of the river. If the guardians have to protect the Indigenous property value associated with the river, then they must promote and secure the river as more than just a natural resource. In other words, the guardians must also promote and secure the spiritual and cultural rights of the river— not simply the physical and ecological rights.

Although Tu-tohu Whakatupua is neither a settlement nor a decision with any independent binding authority, if the terms are followed then the final settlement will be governed according Whanganui Iwi values—values that define the river as a treasure contributing to the survival of the group, rather than a profit-generating resource. However, Whanganui Iwi rights to the river may also end up being restricted by the recognition of the river as a legal entity because once the guardians have been appointed, Whanganui Iwi, like the Crown, will have no power to influence them.

While the guardianship model ensures that the Whanganui River will not be owned by anyone, thereby promoting the Crown’s view of natural resources, the Whanganui Iwi maintain that the welfare of the Whanganui River is the most important part of any settlement. As Che Wilson, affiliated with Whanganui Iwi, notes, “the recognition of [the river] as its own legal entity goes a long way to us as descendants of the river [in] ensuring that the protection of the river is upheld and its sanctity is maintained.” It is difficult to speculate on the full implications of the agreement because its details have yet to be fully fleshed out. But Tu-tohu Whakatupua is arguably cause for cautious optimism as Indigenous Peoples continue to fight for the recognition of their views of the natural environment.

—Brendan Kennedy was born and raised in Aotearoa, and is currently a third year law student at Suffolk University Law School in Boston, Massachusetts.

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