As they gained territory, the newcomers imposed new rules on land and sea. Under English law, the river was not considered a single entity. It was seen as a mosaic of legally separate parts – water, riverbeds and airspace above water – all regulated by different laws. The parts of the river that were navigable, for example, were legally separated from the parts that were not. In 2008, Albert`s uncle decided he wanted to try longer to adapt to the Pakeha laws. Taiaroa and Albert began a new process of colonization, but this time they wanted to create their own legal framework – something that truly represented what the river meant to Maori. “It`s both a social contract and a political contract, because it`s a legal construct,” he says. “It`s not about what we get out of the river, it`s about what we give it.” The Te Awa Tupua (Whanganui River Claims Settlement) Bill has been widely reported in New Zealand and abroad because of a particularly innovative effect: it gives the Whanganui River legal personality. A corporation is an entity that has the same rights and obligations as a person. Under New Zealand law, a number of companies have a legal entity, including corporations, trusts and corporations. But Daniel says that water is taken for cooling, even though Genesis interrupts the distance to produce electricity. He and others hope the company will be forced to make major improvements — or abandon the river altogether — when its license to regulate the power system expires in 2039.
He first paddled the river in a long traditional Maori canoe in 1979 when he and about 20 of his friends gathered at the slaughterhouse where they worked for a regatta celebrating Waitangi Day, which commemorates the 1840 treaty signed between the British and Maori. Almost as long as settlers have been in Whanganui, local Maori have been fighting for their own vision of the river to be recognised. The Whanganui Māori have a saying: Ko au te awa, ko te awa ko au: I am the river, and the river is me. But as the Europeans – or Pakeha, as they are called in New Zealand – took control of the region, they increasingly destroyed what the river had been. They operated a steamboat, took gravel from the river, left trout in rivers for fishing, and destroyed old fish dams where Maori had fished for generations. Maori settlements were pushed back by the river to make way for new developments. What could be more absurd? To consider a river as a single holistic entity, from where it formed to the sea, to say that we will divide the river? He asked. “That`s a pretty clean way of thinking about things, I think.” Chris Finlayson, minister for Treaty of Waitangi negotiations, said the decision ended the longest legal battle in New Zealand`s history. “Te Awa Tupua will have its own legal identity with all corresponding rights, obligations and responsibilities of a legal entity,” Finlayson said in a statement. Albert, 54, was Whanganui`s Maori negotiator to get the river`s personality recognised by lawmakers after his tribe fought for the river`s rights for more than 140 years.
“It`s our best river in the backcountry, and it has amazing trout fishing, great scenery, and I personally come here and hunt a lot,” he says. For example, river keepers were not consulted on plans for a new bike bridge over the river, Albert said. They don`t support it because they don`t see why the additional development is needed, but they don`t want to make a fuss. The local Māori Whanganui tribe in the North Island has been fighting for 140 years for their river – New Zealand`s third largest – to be recognised as an ancestor. After arriving in New Zealand in the 1800s, British colonialists industrialized the Whanganui River, long prized by generations of indigenous Maori. The river was polluted by drainage and clearing, and the gravel banks that Albert`s grandmother remembered from her childhood were replaced with mud so wet that you could get on your knees because of gravel extraction. “We struggled to find an approximation in the law so that everyone could understand that, from our perspective, treating the river as a living being is the right way to approach it as an indivisible whole, rather than the traditional 100-year model of treating it from a property and management perspective.” Grant Cooper is the land and partnership manager at Horizons Regional Council, which has worked with farmers along the river for 18 years to reverse erosion and make other improvements. This includes fencing streams to reduce cattle and sheep waste, which increases levels of nitrates and unwanted bacteria. The 290-kilometre (180-mile) waterway was at the heart of his life. Here they fished and lived.
Water was used to treat the sick. They regarded the river as ancestors – it was “their food source, their only highway, their spiritual mentor – according to a 1999 report on Maori rights to the Whanganui River. Albert said that all Maori tribes considered themselves part of the universe, one with and equal to mountains, rivers and seas. From the 1880s to the 1920s, with little or no consultation with the iwi, the Crown carried out work to establish a steamboat service on the river and extract minerals from its bed, undermine its ecological quality, destroy eel dams and fisheries, and compromise the cultural and spiritual value of the river. The Whanganui iwi first petitioned Parliament in the 1870s and spent decades seeking redress and justice from several courts and the Waitangi Tribunal. $80 million to repair these “acts and omissions” of the Crown. He will recognize Te Awa Tupua as an indivisible and living whole encompassing the Whanganui River from the mountains to the sea and all its physical and metaphysical elements. The law was part of a comparison with the Iwi of Whanganui, composed of Māori from a number of tribes who have long regarded the river as a life force. This new legal approach set a precedent that was followed by several other countries, including Bangladesh, which granted all its rivers the same rights as humans in 2019. The Whanganui River settlement, which also included about NZ$80 million ($50 million) in financial reparations and millions more for the future health of the river, was approved by Conservative lawmaker Chris Finlayson and passed in a vote without objection. To follow the river, which winds inland, motorists leave State Highway 4 and take the hilly, narrow Whanganui River Road. Little seems to have changed here in 75 years, when rural towns and farms were on the rise in New Zealand.
When we think of rivers as living things that are part of our community, it fundamentally changes the way we talk about them, the way we make laws about them, the way we make decisions about them. “We can trace our genealogy back to the origins of the universe,” Albert said. And that`s why we`re not masters of the natural world, we`re part of it.