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Whanganui River legally recognized as living entity, New Zealand

A new legal framework called Te Pā Auroa legally recognizes Te Awa Tupua as a being consisting of the river "from the mountains to the sea, its tributaries, and all physical and metaphysical elements, as an indivisible and living whole


In March 2017, a New Zealand judge´s ruling--recognizing the Whanganui River as a living entity after over a century of Māori advocacy--was passed into law.  The Whanganui River is the longest navigable river in Aotearoa New Zealand [2] and the third longest in all New Zealand [1]. It flows through Whanganui Māori territory from North Island´s center to the west coast. [2] The river is considered "central to the existence of Whanganui Iwi and their health and wellbeing", providing "physical and spiritual sustenance", and is seen as the ancestor of the Māori Whanganui Iwi. [2] Whanganui Māori have long protested against their loss of control over the river, including loss of navigation and resource-use rights, and activities such as river bed works, gravel extraction, and water diversion for hydro-electric power, considering that these breach their treaty rights. Though quickly violated, the Treaty of Waitangi was signed by fourteen Whanganui Māori chiefs in 1840, guaranteeing Māori possession and control of their territory, including forests, lands, fisheries, and estates. [2] The Whanganui Iwi´s resistance to this loss of guardianship and treatment of the river has included parliamentary petitions, reports by the Waitangi Tribunal and a Royal Commission, and a variety of legal actions resulting in court cases between 1938-2010 that fought for return of guardianship and management to the Whanaganui Iwi. [2] In 1988 the Whanganui River Māori Trust Board was established in order to negotiate for outstanding claims by Whanganui Iwi over the river. A complaint filed by the Board in 1990, claiming a breach of the Treaty of Waitangi, resulted in a 1999 report by the Waitangi Tribunal that Whanganui Iwi rights to management and control of the river had indeed been violated. In 2003 the Board and the Crown agreed to negotiation terms to settle historical claims regarding the river. [3]  These negotiations resulted in an agreement intended to resolve grievances between the Iwi and government regarding future river management, reached in 2012 and signed in 2014, creating a new legal entity for the river called Te Awa Tupua. The agreement, called the Whanganui River Deed of Settlement (Ruruku Whakatupua—Te Mana o Te Awa Tupua), aims to uphold the spiritual relationship between the Iwi and the river and its status as a living being. [2] The settlement´s legislation, a public act dated March 20th, 2017, brings the "longest running litigation in New Zealand´s history to an end" [3], and establishes Te Pou Tupua as the human face and representative of Te Awa Tupua. [4] The bill works to establish a new legal framework called Te Pā Auroa, which legally recognizes Te Awa Tupua as a being consisting of the river "from the mountains to the sea, its tributaries, and all physical and metaphysical elements, as an indivisible and living whole" [3]. The legislation confirms that Te Awa Tupua has all the same rights, powers, liabilities, and duties as a legal person, and these these will be exercised by Te Pou Tupua on behalf of Te Awa Tupua in accordance with the settlement terms. Te Pou Tupua consists of two people, one nominated by the Crown and one by the Iwi. The settlement also includes government payments of NZ$30 million to establish a trust fund (Te Korotete), and yearly payments of NZ$200,000 for twenty years in order to contribute to the expenses of Te Pou Tupua´s functions. There will be a River Strategy Group in order to create a strategy that those exercising powers or functions according to other legislation must take into account. [3] The second part of the settlement focuses on cultural and financial redress for the Whanganui Iwi, including Crown apologies for past wrongdoings, authority to conduct cultural activities, official geographic place name assignments, and intentions to move towards social services projects. [3] Please note that the 'impact' section refers to the impact of the appropriation of the river by the Crown, not the impact of the granting of legal personality to the river.

Basic Data
Name of conflict:Whanganui River legally recognized as living entity, New Zealand
Country:New Zealand
State or province:Manawatu-Wanganui Region
Location of conflict:Whanganui River
Accuracy of locationMEDIUM (Regional level)
Source of Conflict
Type of conflict. 1st level:Water Management
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Dams and water distribution conflicts
Water access rights and entitlements
Specific commodities:Eel
Sand, gravel
Project Details and Actors
Project details

River length: around 300km

See more
Level of Investment:80,900,000.00
Affected Population:>21000
Start of the conflict:01/01/1870
End of the conflict:05/08/2014
Relevant government actors:New Zealand Government
The Crown
Whanganui Iwi
Whanganui River Trust Board
Whanganui River Maori Trust Board
Conflict & Mobilization
IntensityHIGH (widespread, mass mobilization, violence, arrests, etc...)
Groups mobilizing:Indigenous groups or traditional communities
Local government/political parties
Ethnically/racially discriminated groups
Forms of mobilization:Development of a network/collective action
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Official complaint letters and petitions
Occupation of buildings/public spaces
Arguments for the rights of mother nature
Environmental ImpactsVisible: Other Environmental impacts, Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Food insecurity (crop damage), Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Soil contamination, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Groundwater pollution or depletion, Large-scale disturbance of hydro and geological systems
Health ImpactsVisible: Other Health impacts, Malnutrition
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Loss of livelihood, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Specific impacts on women, Loss of landscape/sense of place
Potential: Other socio-economic impacts
Project StatusStopped
Conflict outcome / response:Compensation
Environmental improvements, rehabilitation/restoration of area
Institutional changes
Court decision (victory for environmental justice)
Negotiated alternative solution
New legislation
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:Not Sure
Sources & Materials
Related laws and legislations - Juridical texts related to the conflict

Te Awa Tupua (Whanganui River Claims Settlement) Act 2017
[click to view]

References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

[2] Nature as an Ancestor: Two Examples of Legal Personality for Nature in New Zealand
[click to view]

[3] New Zealand: Bill Establishing River as Having Own Legal Personality Passed
[click to view]

Links to general newspaper articles, blogs or other websites

The Encyclopedia of New Zealand: Whanganui tribes
[click to view]

New Zealand river granted same legal rights as human being
[click to view]

[1] New Zealand river to be recognised as living entity after 170-year legal battle
[click to view]

[4] Whanganui River Maori Trust Board, river history timeline
[click to view]

Whanganui River, Encyclopedia of New Zealand
[click to view]

Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

[5] Still image of Te Awa Tupua from film "Te Awa Tupua - Voices from the River", 2014, Directed by Paora Te Oti Takarangi Joseph
[click to view]

Te Awa Tupua - Voices from the River Film (Trailer) – 2014
[click to view]

Meta information
Last update18/08/2019
Legal notice / Aviso legal
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