The Whanganui River, located on the northern island of New Zealand, isn’t the longest river in the country, nor is it located near any of the country’s largest cities. However, it is considered sacred by the Maori people (also called iwi), an indigenous people that makes up 15 percent of the national population, per BBC News.
On Wednesday, New Zealand’s parliament passed a bill recognizing the river “as an indivisible and living whole,” per the Sydney Morning Herald. That bill ends a long-running legal battle between the Maori and the government which stretches all the way back to the 1870s, the New Zealand Herald reports.
As part of the bill and settlement, the New Zealand government agreed to pay 80 million New Zealand dollars (roughly $56.2 million) in financial redress, NZ$30 million for a fund dedicated to improving the health of the river and NZ$1 million in legal fees.
Moving forward, the river will be jointly represented by a member of the Maori and a representative of the government. Because of its new legal status, the river will now be able to sue to protect its rights.
“I know the initial inclination of some people will say it's pretty strange to give a natural resource a legal personality,” Minister Chris Finlayson told the New Zealand Herald. “But it's no stranger than family trusts, or companies or incorporated societies.”
“We have a chance to restore (the river) to its life-giving essence and, in doing so, to gift back to the Whanganui River iwi their rightful obligations and responsibilities to the river that runs through their veins,” Maori Party co-leader Marama Fox told the Sydney Morning Herald.
Per the New Zealand Herald, the Maori have a common saying: “I am the river and the river is me.”
While this is the first time a natural resource has been granted legal personality, New Zealand has granted legal personality to other unusual entities before. In 2013, the government extended personal rights to Te Urewera National Park, according to the New Zealand Herald.
In the U.S., as in many other countries, personhood and all its rights has been extended to corporations for some time, most famously in the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling in 2010, per NPR.