Meet the First River in the World to be Legally Declared a Person

In March 2017, the New Zealand government made history by passing the Te Awa Tupua Bill.

Whanganui River; Photo: Marianne Archibald
Whanganui River; Photo: Marianne Archibald

In March 2017, the New Zealand government made history by passing the Te Awa Tupua Bill. A result of a 170-year legal battle led by a local Maori tribe, the bill declares the Whanganui River a legal person with "all the rights, powers, duties, and liabilities of a legal person."


The Whanganui River is the third largest in New Zealand, located on the North Island of the country. It has always been considered sacred by the Maori Iwi people and has been an integral part of their culture and tradition, captured in the saying “I am the river, and the river is me.”

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Since the 1870s, the tribes have fought for a legal recognition of their relationship with the river. They have also been concerned about the government’s impact on the river’s “health and wellbeing.” 

Now, thanks to the newly passed bill, this recognition is finally a fact. The river will be jointly represented by a member appointed by the Maori community and one appointed by the government.

New Zealand cabinet minister Christopher Finlayson said:

“Some people will say it’s pretty strange to give a natural resource a legal personality. But it’s no stranger than family trusts, companies or incorporated societies.” 

Hopefully, this precedent gives a positive example to other countries as well. 

Photo: Marianne Archibald via Flickr

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