If there was ever a moment when you thought New Zealand had drifted into the twilight zone, that moment could be when a Minister of the Crown with a straight face said that the Wanganui River had become a person.
Treaty of Waitangi Negotiations Minister Christopher Finlayson said, when the Te Awa Tupua (Whanganui River Claims Settlement) Bill passed its third reading on March 15, 2017, that the bill “responds to the view of the iwi of the Whanganui River which has long recognised Te Awa Tupua through its traditions, customs and practise."
The “personalising” of the river overshadowed a hefty transfer of wealth from taxpayers comprising $81-million plus interest to settle river claims by some tribes associated with the river plus a further $30-million fund for these tribes to apply for river-related grants out of.
The law has created an office - Te Pou Tupua - to act as "the human face" of the river, comprising two nominees – one representing the Crown and the other representing the tribes.
That office draws a further $200,000 a year for 20 years to fund a two-person board known as the “human face” – presumably $100,000 a year each.
A further $430,000 has been set aside to develop a strategy document on the wellbeing of the river person.
Maori Party co-leader Marama Fox said the move followed the example used in the Tuhoe Settlement Bill which saw Te Urewera National Park become a legal entity in 2014.
It is interesting to note that the Tuhoe co-governance set-up soon moved to a Tuhoe take-over.
Initially an eight-member board was set up with four representing the Crown and five for the tribe including the Tuhoe chair.
But after three years Tuhoe would have six representatives.
New Zealand has gone down this track already with the $211.8-million Waikato River settlement in 2010, which brought complaints in 2016 about the lack of progress in the claimed river clean-up.
With a length of 290km, the Wanganui River is the country's third-longest river, flowing from Mount Tongariro to the coast at Wanganui. It is the country's longest navigable river.
The Te Mana o Te Iwi $80-million deed says the agreement seeks to settle complaints that go back to 1871, to an application for title to the foreshore and riverbed adjacent to several blocks at Putiki.
In late 1885 the Crown began clearing snags and rapids from the river to help establish a steamer service. Maori complained about the impact on eel and lamprey weirs and asked that river deepening work be stopped because they never agreed to it.
The Wanganui River Trust Act 1891 allowed jetties to be built and tolls charged. The Wanganui River Trust Act Amendment Act 1893 included a provision by which Maori affected by the works could apply to the Native Land Court for compensation. Nevertheless, some continued to obstruct clearance works.
The Coal-mines Act Amendment Act 1903 provided that the beds of all navigable rivers “shall be deemed to have always been vested in the Crown”, and “declared that all minerals contained within those river beds belonged to the Crown”. Section 5 of the Wanganui River Trust Amendment Act 1920 empowered the Wanganui River Trust to extract and sell gravel from the Wanganui River.
Wanganui tribes took their riverbed claim to the Maori Land Court in 1938, and again in 1944 and 1945, and to the Supreme Court in 1949.
A further petition and the appointment of a Royal Commission followed in 1950, with matters referred to the Court of Appeal in 1953, back to the Maori Appellate Court in 1958 and then again to the Court of Appeal which issued a final decision in 1962 rejecting the claim.
Tribes took legal proceedings in 1988, 1990, 1992, 2000, and between 2001 and 2010 over the Tongariro power scheme that was established in the 1960s “without reference to the Wanganui tribes”. The tribes reached an agreement with Genesis Energy in 2011.
They lodged a claim to the Waitangi Tribunal (Wai 167) in 1990. The tribunal predictably found in favour of the claimants.
Noting that there are 143 known maraes along the river, the Te Mana o Te Iwi agreement includes: Hapu – Ngati Haua, Ngati Patutokotoko, Ngati Kura, Ngati Hau, Ngati Ruaka, Ngati Poutama, Ngati Pamoana, Ngati Tuera, Ngati Paerangi, Ngati Tupoho, Ngati Rangi and Ngati Uenuku; and tupuna rohe – Hinengakau, Tamaupoko, Tupoho, Tamahaki, and Uenuku; but excludes Ngati Tuwharetoa, Ngati Maniapoto, Ngati Rereahu, Ngati Maru, Ngati Ruanui, Nga Rauru Kitahi, and Ngati Apa.
This is an agreement in which primal religion, in which plants, trees, animals, hills and valleys, waterways, lakes, and even rocks, are experienced as spiritual beings in their own right, will be written into New Zealand law.
The settlement deed holds that the Wanganui River, which is referred to as Te Awa Tupua, is an integrated indivisible entity in both biophysical and metaphysical terms, and the health and wellbeing of the river is intrinsically interconnected with the health and wellbeing of the people.
The agreement notes that there are more than 240 identified rapids on the Wanganui River between Taumarunui and the mouth of the River.
The belief is that each rapid of the river is inhabited by a spiritual guardian, which is particular to associated groups of people.
These rapids spirits provide insight, guidance and premonition in relation to matters affecting the Wanganui River, its resources and life in general.
Whanganui tribes and the family groups of Whanganui look to these guardians for guidance in times of joy, despair or uncertainty, for the guidance and insight they can provide.
A strategy group named Te Kopuka consists of 17 members -- one from Nga Tangata Tiaki o Whanganui, five from Wanganui River tribes, four from relevant local authorities, one each from Fish and Game, Conservation, Genesis Energy, representing environmental and conservation interests, tourism, recreational interests, and the primary sector respectively.
Crown-owned parts of the bed of the Wanganui River will vest in Te Awa Tupua. The vesting of the Crown-owned parts of the bed of the Wanganui River in Te Awa Tupua does not create or transfer a proprietary interest in water.
For those who think this legislation is a laughing matter be warned. No person may use in public the name “Te Awa Tupua” in an offensive or derogatory manner.
Whanganui River gets rights of a legal person, Stuff, March 16, 2017. http://i.stuff.co.nz/national/politics/90488008/whanganui-river-gets-the-rights-of-a-legal-person
Tuhone, co-governance, colonial purge, NZCPR, September 11, 2016. http://breakingviewsnz.blogspot.co.nz/2016/09/mike-butler-tuhoe-co-governance_11.html
Ruruku Whakatupua - Te Mana o Te Iwi o Whanganui, http://nz01.terabyte.co.nz/ots/DocumentLibrary/RurukuWhakatupua-TeManaoTeIwioWhanganui.pdf
Ruruku Whakatupua - Te Mana o Te Awa Tupua, http://nz01.terabyte.co.nz/ots/DocumentLibrary/RurukuWhakatupua-TeManaoTeAwaTupua.pdf