David Freid: How New Zealand's Whanganui River Became a Legal Person

The Atlantic:

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For more than 700 years, the Maori, the indigenous people of New Zealand, fought to maintain their spiritual connection to the Whanganui River. Mostly, it was a losing battle: Rapids were dynamited, gravel was extracted, and water was drained and polluted. Promises were broken. Generations of Maori looked on as awa tupua—their river of sacred power—was treated as a means to an end or, worse, as a dumping ground.

Then, in 2017, something unprecedented happened. The New Zealand government granted the Whanganui River legal personhood—a status that is in keeping with the Maori worldview that the river is a living entity. The legislation, which has yet to be codified into domestic law, refers to the river as an “indivisible, living whole,” conferring it “all the rights, powers, duties, and liabilities” of an individual.

David Freid’s short documentary The River Is Me seeks to understand how the landmark legislation came to pass, its significance for the Maori, and how the river’s new legal status will be enforced in future litigation. In the film, Freid interviews many experts on the subject, including the Maori leader and treaty negotiator Gerrard Albert and Chris Finlayson, the former attorney general of New Zealand who worked with the Maori to pass the legislation.