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NZ Whanganui River has rights equivalent to a person

Annie Cowie’s paintings of the New Zealand Whanganui River from the 1890s

“The Whanganui River is the guide and leader: not the government, not iwi (Maori tribes), but the Awa Tupua (river) first.”—Charles Dawson, 2012

Some of you may know that I’m back in New Zealand after presenting my work “the ecocidal eye—towards a relational gaze in cinema” at the 2012 American Society Literature, Environment and Culture of Australia-New Zealand (ASLEC-ANZ) conference on Regarding the Earth: in words and image in Melbourne to spend time with my family. I always treasure the time I have back home and hadn’t been thinking here of my work much.

However last week I got a message from my ASLEC-NZ colleague Charles Dawson, who has worked for many years on the legal side of enacting New Zealand’s/Aotearoa’s Treaty of Waitangi for recognition of Maori peoples’ rights to their lands (Charles’ father was a lawyer working for iwi (Maori tribes) before him). A historic agreement with the NZ government had been reached in the last few weeks in regards to one of New Zealand-Aoetearoa’s major rivers, the Whanganui River, on the 30 August 2012. This achievement is of international importance too, in regards to safeguarding the Whanganui river in its own right and for all communities, the human and the more-than human communities who depend on it (and thereby preventing ecocide in the future too). For the first time in NZ, and I expect this is a first internationally too, the Whanganui River has been given rights equivalent to a person! You can read more here from our newspapers here, New Zealand Herald and the Whanganui ChronicleChris Freemantle of Ecoartscotland was quick off the mark to review this as a  historic step too and

how for the first time a river has the same rights as many of our corporations.

Charles told me that the New Zealand government’s newly accepted document (see full text here DocumentLibrary_WhanganuiRiverAgreement) emphasises that the Whanganui River ‘is the guide and leader: not the government, not iwi (Maori tribes), but the Awa Tupua (river) first’.

My mother and I were excited to hear this news in particular as we have a strong family connection to this major river in the north island of New Zealand. My great Grandmother, Annie Cowie (nee Cowper), was one of the first Europeans to settle on a farm in the remote upper reaches of this river. Last year I helped publish an online book with my mother for her 75th birthday commemorating Annie but also sharing Annie’s significant artistic record of her time in this remote area in the 1890’s (my mother is sure that I get my artistic interests from Annie).

* See Annie’s paintings of the Whanganui River in 1890s in the online book

Kei te pai Awa Tupua Whanganui! (Congratulations to the Whanganui River) and thanks to my mother for safeguarding our family history too.

Footnote:  I have just received news this week from the team working with UK environmental lawyer Polly Higgins (who I have written about before on HerCircle)

Polly Higgins – Lawyer for the Earth
Polly Higgins – Lawyer for the Earth (Photo credit: Metrix X),  who is championing an international law for eradicating ecocide, that the UK/Wales Green Party this week has given  its wholehearted support for an international law of Ecocide – a crime against nature, humanity and future generations – to be established and recognised as the 5th UN International Crime Against Peace.”

You can be sure I will be putting a similar motion to our own Green Party in Ireland and New Zealand/Aotearoa in the near future.


Cathy Fitzgerald
Cathy Fitzgerald is a rural-based experimental filmmaker / visual artist with a background in research biology. Born in New Zealand she has lived in Ireland for 16 years. She is presently a Visual Culture PhD Scholar at the National College of Art & Design (NCAD), Dublin, Ireland. She is looking at experimental film (practice and theory) and ecology in this age of biospheric crisis. Her research work can be seen at www.ecoartflm.com
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