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Why a New Zealand river now has legal personhood

The new person status for the river is the result of a settlement between the government of New Zealand and the Māori people, whose culture has a deep connection with the body of water.

In the eyes of the law, the Whanganui river in New Zealand just underwent a significant transition on Wednesday: it became a person. The river, which is the third longest in the country, will have all the legal rights of personhood, thanks to a nearly 150-year effort by local Māori people, for whom the river is a significant part of their culture.

"The reason we have taken this approach is because we consider the river an ancestor and always have," said Gerrard Albert, the lead negotiator for the Whanganui iwi (tribe), told The Guardian.

The Māori have fought for formal legal recognition of their connection to the river, which they refer to as "Te Awa Tupua," since the 1870s, according to Treaty Negotiations Minister Chris Finlayson. Now, through a bill passed by Parliament, they have just that.

"Te Awa Tupua will have its own legal identity with all the corresponding rights, duties and liabilities of a legal person," Mr. Finlayson said, according to NewsHub. "The approach of granting legal personality to a river is unique."

By giving legal personhood to the body of water, any harm that comes to the river will not be differentiated from harm that would come to the iwi, since they river and iwi are one and the same in the eyes of the Māori. But while this appears to be the first time a river has become a legal person, the phenomenon is not entirely unprecedented. Te Urewera National Park, also in New Zealand, achieved similar recognition in 2014.

Since it cannot speak for itself, the river will have two human representatives, one appointed by the iwi and one by the government, for any future court proceedings.

"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," Finlayson said.

The significance of the river has deep roots in Māori tradition, with the well-being of Te Awa Tupua often linked directly to the well-being of the iwi. In the Māori language, this connection is encapsulated by the old saying, "Ko au te awa, ko te awa ko au," which means, "I am the river and the river is me," according to Radio New Zealand.

The Māori lived and traveled near the river for generations. But by the late 20th century, tourists and boaters had begun to take over the river, and by the 1970s, pollution had become an increasing concern.

"We have a chance to restore Te Awa Tupua to its life-giving essence and, in doing so, to gift back to the Whanganui River iwi their rightful obligations and responsibilities to the river that runs through their veins," Māori Party co-leader Marama Fox told Radio New Zealand.

The conclusion of the settlement also brings to an end the longest-running litigation in New Zealand's history. In addition to giving the river legal personhood, the government will pay $80 million (about $56 million US dollars) in redress and give an additional $1 million (about $700,000 US) contribution in order to help establish the legal framework for the river. Another $30 million (about $21 million US) will also be contributed to a fund to improve the health of the river, according to the New Zealand Herald.

"It is ironic that the legal personhood is seen as a clever and novel response to the tense issues around ownership and kaitiakitanga and yet in Māori terms the river has always had a personality," New Zealand MP Chester Borrows wrote in an op-ed this week.

"Big concessions have not been made to the way we have traditionally done things in comparison to the understanding we have all gained in this cultural dimension, unique to our shores, and adding to the peace we all enjoy," he added. "Though a long way to go, we have come too far to stop here."

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