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Whanganui River legally recognized as living entity, New Zealand


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:Water access rights and entitlements
Dams and water distribution conflicts
Specific commodities:Water
Sand, gravel

Project Details and Actors

Project details

River length: around 300km

Whanganui River timeline created by Whanganui River Maori Trust Board [4]:

1849: Right to eel fishing reserved to Maori in various streams

1877: Whanganui Iwi [tribes] object to Harbour Board regulations that threaten ancient fishing grounds and therefore destroy economic base of Iwi

1880: Eel weirs destroyed by Crown to clear river for steamer navigation and gold and coal prospecting

1882: gravel extracted from river for road building, further destroys fishing grounds

1884: Coal found at Tangarakau

1885: Salmon released in upper river. Steamer and mail service established.

1886-1888: over 501 Iwi members petition government to stop steamers, which are destroying eel and lamprey weirs

1888-1991: Crown continues to destroy weirs, drain swamps, and clear rapids

1891: Coal Mines Act

1895: Iwi take case to Supreme Court over customary fishing rights

1896: Whanganui River Trust Board (WRTB, arm of Crown) established, gives management control of river to colonists.

1898: Iwi seek compensation from Crown for gravel taken from river

1903: Coal Mines Act amended to vest beds of navigable rivers in His Majesty The King.

1907: Aotea Maori Land Court rules that Iwi are entitled to receive compensation for gravel extraction

1913: 196 members of Whanganui Iwi petition court to halt Crown appropriation of riparian lands under Scenic Reserves Act

1918: WRTB seeks legal advice to keep extracting gravel

1919: WRTB prohibits construction of more weirs by Whanganui Iwi

1920: Settlers propose series of hydroelectric dams on river, WRTB wins right to extract gravel

1927: Ke Piki Kotuku and others try to petition parliament for 300,000 compensation for loss of native rights regarding river, unsuccessful

1931-1937: Whanganui Iwi raise money for legal battles to protect rights regarding river (Awa)

1936: petition lodged to challenge ownership of Awa

1937: formal objection lodged to introduction of trout into river by Acclimatisation Authority

1939: Crown appeals against appellate court decision to Supreme Court, seeks to block ruling on river bed title

1948: Crown again appeals decision

1949: legal ruling that 1903 Coal Mine Amendment Act gave riverbed ownership to Crown, thus areas of riverbed included in land sales of adjacent land parcels

1950: Royal Commission of Inquiry established to determine if Iwi customarily owned river

1955: Court of Appeal finds that riverbed had been customarily owned under Maori custom

1959: Hikaia Amohia formally objects to diversion of river headwaters

1960: Headwaters diverted in order to provide more water for hydroelectric power scheme

1962: Court of Appeal says 1903 Act granted riverbed ownership to Crown, therefore there is no legal avenue for Whanganui Iwi to claim ownership

1969: Taumarunui Borough Council begins to receive annual financial compensation for diversion of headwaters, Whanganui Iwi receive nothing.

1977: Whanganui Iwi petition queen concerning river treaty rights

1981: Minister of Maori affairs, Ben Couch, recommends to parliament that they take no action

1986: New Zealand Gazette establishes water control orders over Whanganui River. Whanganui National Park established, but due to an Iwi petition, excludes river. Minister of Lands promises Iwi participation in park management but does not follow through.

1988: Whanganui River Maori Trust Board established to negotiate all outstanding customary rights claims by Whanganui Iwi.

1990: Iwi appeal Electricorps application for minimum flow regime in river. Planning Tribunal results in minimum flow provisions.

1991: Negotiations with Crown to address river ownership framework.

1993: Negotiations suspended

1994: framework for creation of three-tupuna rohae runanga implemented. Resource Management Act prompts greater Iwi participation in consent process.

1995: Whanganui Iwi occupy Pakaitore during 80 days, and commemorate the act annually

1997: Iwi treaty rights to customary fisheries recognized

1999: Te Rununga o te Awa Tupua O Whanganui officially formed, recognized as authority for Iwi governance.

2000: Whanganui River Claim negotiation team formed

2001: Pakaitore vested as historic reserve

2003: Terms of Negotiation document signed by Crown and Whanganui Iwi, later that year Iwi oppose further 35 year resource consent to divert Whanganui headwaters in Environmental Court

2004: 30,000 person foreshore and seabed march from Te Rerenga Wairua to parliament

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

Juridical relevant texts related to the conflict (laws, legislations, EIAs, etc)

Te Awa Tupua (Whanganui River Claims Settlement) Act 2017

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

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

Links to general newspaper articles, blogs or other websites

The Encyclopedia of New Zealand: Whanganui tribes

New Zealand river granted same legal rights as human being

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

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

Whanganui River, Encyclopedia of New Zealand

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

Te Awa Tupua - Voices from the River Film (Trailer) – 2014

Meta information

Last update18/08/2019



Te Awa Tupua

Still image of Te Awa Tupua - Whanganui River- from "Te Awa Tupua - Voices from the River", 2014, Directed by Paora Te Oti Takarangi Joseph [6]