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A river with dignity and personality

27 March 2017

A river with dignity and personality

On March 15, 2017 the New Zealand parliament enacted the first of its kind laws to give a river a legal identity. The Whanganui River, from now on, is a “legal person,” a status and privilege that is only allowed to humans in the rest of the world. The rights and interests of the river can be defended in a court of law.

The Maori tribe in the North Island of New Zealand considers the river, the water of the river and the soil where the river stands as sacred entities, and they have been fighting the European governments of New Zealand since 1870 to give the tribe total authority and rights over all uses of the river. According to the Mount Taranaki Legend ( the river was created when mount Taranaki lost a battle with mount Tongariro and decided to remove itself from the land and move to the shore of the sea. This displacement created the 290 km river.

The Whanganui River Credit” WikipediaThe Whanganui River Credit” Wikipedia

The enactment of the law made the tribe very happy this month. "Today we recognize the sacrifice and suffering of the Whanganui tribe, who fought nearly a hundred and fifty years to stop the exploitation of this vital force," said Te Ururoa Flavell, from the Maori Party. After the vote Chris Finlayson said: "This marks the end of the longest dispute in the country's history. This legislation is a recognition of the deeply spiritual connection between the iwi [Tribe] Whanganui and its ancestral river. "

“For most of us – especially European descendants - we may find this recognition of right for a river a very strange proposition,” acknowledged Labor MP Adrian Rurawhe, himself Maori. But for indigenous peoples, it is normal,” he told reporters in New Zealand, before quoting a Maori adage: "I am the river and the river is me. "

"Our land is personified," says Jacinta Ruru, co-director of the Maori Research Center at the University of Otago in Dunedin, South Island. We think of ourselves as part of the environment. Our well-being and our health depend on those of our environment and vice versa. The law has embraced the Maori relationship to the land and reversed the idea of human sovereignty," she said.

The Law will defend the rights and interests of the Whanganui that can be defended before the courts. In the arrangement the river will be represented by two persons: one member of the tribe and another member of the government. In front of the court, the river will be represented in the same way that an adult speaks in the name of a child before the judge. The river is now better protected, and complaints can even be filed on its behalf. The tribe is not the owner of the river but its custodian, charged with protecting it for present and future generations. It received NZ $ 80 million (€ 52.2 million) as financial compensation, and $ 30 million to improve the state of the river.

A view of the Whanganui River Credit: WikipediaA view of the Whanganui River Credit: Wikipedia

As human and in particular as readers of this engineering site, we should rejoice with this legislation, in particular during these times when there a peoples and institutions denying the effect of our way of life on nature; climate change denier comes to my mind. This law, presented as a first by the government of New Zealand, it has precedents according to international lawyer Valerie Cabanes, author of A New Right for the Earth (2016) and who put forward "the climatic and environmental crisis" "The recognition of the rights of nature is evolving in the world," she said, referring to examples in Ecuador and Bolivia, as well as counties in the United States or the city of Mexico that have enacted similar laws.

For the first peoples there is no distinction between humanity and nature. This idea is at the origin of this affirmation of the rights of nature. But "more and more Westerners are taking part in this process", according to Ms. Cabanes. "Since Judéo-Christianity and the supremacy of the West on the world, man has positioned himself as dominant. But it is only a vision of the world, which has clearly reached its limits. "

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