A river hu­man­ised

New Zealand plans to legally de­clare its third largest river, the

Down to Earth - - COVER STORY - RA­JAT GHAI & SUBHOJIT GOSWAMI

AS KAR­NATAKA and Tamil Nadu bat­tle over the Cau­very river, a ground­break­ing de­vel­op­ment has taken place in New Zealand. The Pa­cific na­tion is set to legally de­clare its third largest river, the Whanganui, a per­son .

If the Te Awa Tupua (Whanganui River Claims Set­tle­ment) Bill is passed, it would grant the river legal per­son­hood . As a re­sult, for the first time, Maori tribes will be able to file law­suits on the river's be­half if there are en­vi­ron­men­tal vi­o­la­tions. The tribes will nei­ther own the wa­ter nor any wa­ter rights will be cre­ated through the agree­ment. Their fo­cus is on ful­fill­ing com­mu­nity obli­ga­tions and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties to­wards the river. With the ex­cep­tion of Ecuador in South Amer­ica, which granted rights to its nat­u­ral ecosys­tems a few years ago, New Zealand's leg­is­la­tion may be­come the first in the world ex­clu­sively for river protection.

set­tlers on the is­land vi­o­lated the Treaty of Wai­tangi signed in 1840 be­tween Maori chiefs and the Bri­tish Crown on how to live to­gether in New Zealand. This bill is a part of the process of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion with the Maori tribes un­der­taken by the New Zealand govern­ment, says Jac­inta Ruru, pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Otago.

The Whanganui river is New Zealand's long­est nav­i­ga­ble river. For cen­turies, Maoris drank from its streams, sur­vived on its re­sources and revered it as their spir­i­tual home. From 1887, steam-boat ser­vices de­stroyed fish and eel pop­u­la­tions. Dredg­ing in the riverbed be­came a con­cern. To­day, there are hardly any fresh­wa­ter fish­eries re­main­ing in the river.

From the 1870s till the present, tribes liv­ing around the Whanganui have sought jus­tice for their claims and protection of the river. Their ap­peals fi­nally reached a con­clu­sion on Au­gust 30, 2012, when the Maori tribes and the Crown signed a pre­lim­i­nary agree­ment, which recorded the key el­e­ments of the agreed Te Awa Tupua frame­work for the Whanganui river.

This small in­dige­nous pop­u­la­tion of New Zealand may have some tra­di­tional an­swers on how to man­age our rivers with­out con­flict. Western con­cepts of legal own­er­ship em­pha­sise in­di­vid­ual and ex­clu­sive own­er­ship. Maori, on the other hand, em­pha­sise rights and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties in a more col­lec­tive man­ner to use and care for nat­u­ral re­sources, ex­plains Ruru.

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