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New Zealand has granted the Whanganui River legal rights in world first case

The Whanganui River in New Zealand has become the world’s first landmark to be recognised as a living entity.

The bill granting the rights was passed yesterday in New Zealand’s parliament and will apply to the 145-kilometre long river that flows from the centre of North Island into the sea.

The Whanganui River is sacred to New Zealand’s Maori Iwi, and they will now be able to represent that river’s interests as if it were a person.

The Te Awa Tupua (Whanganui River Claims Settlement) Bill is part of a settlement associated with the controversial “Treaty of Waitangi”.

Treaty of Waitangi Negotiations Minister Christopher Finlayson said that the Iwi had fought for recognition of its relationship with the river since the 1870s and that his bill brought the longest-running litigation in New Zealand history to an end.

While the idea of a river being a person may seem strange, it is not unusual in Maori culture.

Labour’s Te Tai Hauāuru MP Adrian Rurawhe told Radio New Zealand that the river “absolutely important” to the Iwi people. He added that the Iwi have a saying: “Ko au te awa, ko te awa ko au”, which translates as “I am the river and the river is me”.

As well as assigning the rights of person, which include the ability for the river to be represented in court, the bill was also accompanied by substantial financial compensation.

The New Zealand Herald reports that $NZ80 million was included in the settlement as well as an additional $NZ 1 million contribution towards establishing legal framework for the river.

The river won’t be the first “thing” to gain person rights. In recent years, a similar debate has revolved around the status of corporations in America.

In 2010, The US Supreme Court ruled that corporations have the right to spend money in candidate elections. Letting companies pump cash into campaigns seems like a frankly terrible idea. I wonder how US politics is going these days?

In 2014, another law was added stating that some for-profit corporations may refuse to comply with federal mandates on religious grounds. This opened up a quagmire of opinions about including contraception in employee contracts.

The Treaty of Waitangi was first signed in 1840 by representatives of the British Crown and various Maori chiefs from around New Zealand.

Although it is considered the founding document of the country, its land claims have been contested since the 1970s. According to the New Zealand Ministry of Culture, translation issues and cross-cultural differences have led to conflicting interpretations of the Treaty. As a result, it has become a highly debated topic in the country.

To date, Settlements for the Treaty have consisted of formal apologies and hundreds of millions of dollars in reparations and assets.

About the author

Stefan is an Adelaide-based freelance writer. In his spare time, he plays tennis badly, collects vinyl and brushes up on his Mandarin. Follow Stefan on Twitter

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