Te Awa Tupua

News of an astonishing agreement that recognises the status of a river in New Zealand as Te Awa Tupua, i.e. “an integrated, living whole”.  New Zealand’s Minister for Treaty for Waitangi Negotiations, Christopher Finlayson stated:

Under the settlement, the river is regarded as a protected entity, under an arrangement in which representatives from both the iwi and the national government will serve as legal custodians towards the Whanganui’s best interests.


Whanganui iwi also recognise the value others place on the river and wanted to ensure that all stakeholders and the river community as a whole are actively engaged in developing the long-term future of the river and ensuring its wellbeing.

File:Whanganui River.jpg

The Whanganui River on the North Island of New Zealand

(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0)

However, I think we may have to be careful about the language we use when translating the Whanganui iwi’s beliefs and sentiments into English.  The use of terms like “personhood” is potentially confusing and distracting, although they may be necessary to conform to Western and English legal lexis.

The New Zealand Herald reports:

This is the first time a river has been given a legal identity.  A spokesman for the Minister of Treaty Negotiations said Whanganui River will be recognised as a person when it comes to the law – “in the same way a company is, which will give it rights and interests”.

Hence Treehugger‘s, “New Zealand Grants a River the Rights of Personhood“.

Although Treehugger‘s Stephen Messenger goes on to reflect:

While it may seem an odd extension of rights, in many ways it harkens back to a time when mankind’s fate was more readily acknowledged as being intertwined with that of the rivers, lakes, and streams that sustained us — a time in which our purer instincts towards preserving nature needn’t be dictated by legislation.

Perhaps the language of genius loci and spirit of place better serve us in this case.  Naturally, both terms carry their own connotations and histories, but they better recognise the spiritual entity or “presence” of places, as well as the interrelationships between this spiritual entity and a place’s physical and living elements.  In fact, could we interpret this as the emergence of legal requirements to recognise spirit of place?

Putting word choice issues to one side, it will be interesting to see how the manner in which this preliminary agreement shapes the future of the river and the river’s life (or not).  Note:

An agreement between the Crown and local iwi on what the values will be in protecting the river are yet to be decided.  [And] a whole river strategy, in collaboration with iwi, local government and commercial and recreational users is still being decided.

Will the final agreement put sustaining the intrinsic values of the river and river life before material demands placed on them?  If so, then it would be a brave one to emulate in other places, especially where powerful “extractive” business interests are operating in combination with livelihood demands, corruption, historical grievances, and a struggle to balance national accounts.

Yet negotiating these demands–typical of most places, whether urban or rural, developed or pre-industrial–within a legal framework that compels stakeholders to take account of the broad, intrinsic and perpetual value of places, is more likely to lead to genuine sustainable development.

One Comment on “Te Awa Tupua”

  1. senseourway says:

    Note the also remarkable ruling passed in Ecuador in 2008 that approved “a bill of rights for nature” and “new laws to change the legal status of nature from being simply property to being a right-bearing entity”:


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