Te Awa Tupua

A claim that took close to 148 years to reach a conclusion – heralding it as the longest-running legal case in New Zealand history – was settled between the Crown and Whanganui Iwi last year.

At the heart of the proposed settlement is the legal recognition of the Whanganui River as a person – in essence viewed as a separate being with its own legal personality and rights.

The signing and celebration of Ruruku Whakatupua, the Whanganui River Deed of Settlement took place at Rānana in August 2014.Marquees were erected for visitors, flags from different hapū of the river flew and hundreds of cars and buses lined the road for kilometres. Over 1000 people gathered 60 kilometres up the river, at Ruaka Marae, to witness the historical occasion.

Guests were welcomed in three waves – first the local people, then paramount leaders of other iwi including Ngāi Tahu chairman Sir Mark Solomon, Ngāti Tūwharetoa paramount chief Sir Tumu Te Heuheu, and Māori King, Tūheitia. Crown representatives including Treaty Negotiations Minister Chris Finlayson waited last to be welcomed.

After Māori dignitaries had delivered their speeches, Minister Finlayson acknowledged the wrong-doing by past governments in terms of their disregard of iwi opinion in matters concerning the river.

He praised Dame Tariana Turia, for pushing the settlement and for standing up against the Foreshore and Seabed legislation in 2004.

"Only a decade ago, it was Tariana Turia who stood up to her friends and said the Foreshore and Seabed legislation is wrong, it cannot endure, and it was repealed because of her."

Mr Finlayson described her as one of New Zealand's finest politicians.

A trip on the river with the late Sir Archie Taiaroa convinced Minister Finlayson of the need for a just and durable settlement. The tireless work of the late leader who instigated negotiations for a settlement in the 1990s figured prominently in speeches at the signing ceremony.

Iwi negotiators included Brendon Puketapu, Nancy Tuaine and Jamie Ferguson.

Lead negotiator Gerrard Albert said the settlement meant the community could begin to look at ways to provide better environmental outcomes for the waterway.

The most pressing issue was land use, including run-off into the river.

Referring to the river’s severe degradation, Mr Finlayson said something clearly had to be done about it. “It will take time to fix, but should be very different in 50 years.”

As well as making the river and all its tributaries a being with rights, the settlement provides $30 million to restore its health and $80 million in financial redress to its tribes.

Whanganui Mayor Annette Main described the settlement as the perfect arrangement to manage the river.

The river becomes an entity in its own right, Te Awa Tupua. Te Awa Tupua is an indivisible and living whole, comprising of the Whanganui River from the mountains to the sea, incorporating its tributaries and all its physical and metaphysical elements.

Ms Main said her council welcomed the move to work together with Te Ātihaunui-a-Pāpārangi.

"Many of us who are not Māori, have not fully understood the relationship between Whanganui Iwi and the river that sustains them. What I have seen in the document is the ability for all of us to understand how we are connected to the river and why it is so important to our lives.”

Minister Finlayson said the iwi had never willingly relinquished possession of the river, or the things that gave it its essential life.

“The Crown will not own the river bed. The river will own itself. That's a world-leading innovation for a river system."

Its rights are to be upheld by two people, one chosen by the river tribes and the other by government.

Of international significance, Mr Finlayson brought diplomats from countries like Papua New Guinea and Canada to learn more about the unique aspects of the settlement.

The Whanganui River Settlement represents one of only a few instances in the world where a natural resource has been recognised as having its own legal personality and rights. 

Ecuador gave its tropical forests, islands, rivers and air, legal rights equal to those of humans when its constitution became law in 2008. Work was also being done in North America to give natural resources their own identity.

Despite the complexity of the settlement, Mr Finlayson hailed the commitment of the negotiating team to the settlement process. "It was an extraordinarily determined and gifted bunch of people and it worked very well."

It is anticipated that legislation giving effect to the Deed of Settlement will be introduced in 2016.