Visiting New Zealand’s Whanganui River

This river is a person.

In March 2017, New Zealand’s Whanganui River became the world’s second natural resource to be given its own legal identity, with the rights, duties and liabilities of a legal person.
What an honour it was to visit the Whanganui River in person to meet with iwi representatives and river tribes entity Ngā Tāngata Tiaki o Whanganui, who I met with to learn more about how Australia should protect its own rivers and their tributaries.
This interest of mine began years ago, when the late Uncle Max Dulumunmun Harrison took me onto Country and explained how the Barwon and Darling rivers are connected to every living being around them – their water flows like life-giving blood, through hundreds, millions of other creatures. The rivers, essentially, are a living being, deserving of protection.
But like many rivers around Australia, the Barwon and Darling rivers and their ecosystems are under threat from over-extraction of water for agribusiness such as cotton, rice growing and sheep farming. There have been attempts to protect these rivers but the agribusiness industry is so powerful in Australia that those efforts have failed. Large corporate farming enterprises have bought a lot of land around these rivers and are pumping water out to irrigate the ground with little consideration for the environment, or for indigenous interests and connection.
Of course, the governance of today doesn’t understand the importance of the connection between the river, the land, animals, the air and the people – but I think indigenous people such as Māori and the First Nations people of Australia do understand that, just like Uncle Max taught me.
As you know, my role in NSW Parliament is about protecting animals, but I don’t see a disconnect between animals, water, air, and the environment – to me it’s all part of the same story. Interconnectedness is the principle we all have to understand.
That’s why I have engaged with Indigenous elders in Australia and why I visited New Zealand to learn more about the Whanganui River’s personhood status. For over 120 years, the river tribes of the Whanganui have worked incredibly hard with extraordinary insight and tenacity to bring about this recognition. It’s amazing that the Te Awa Tupua (Whanganui River Claims Settlement) Act of parliament five years ago required changes of central and local government, and it’s a sign of things to come.
The preservation and personhood of a river is a very powerful instrument to help nature and help the environment and reverse all of the destruction that colonisation in particular has brought. I think this is what we need in Australia, too.
Think about it. Think about your local river, and how a powerful company could buy up the land and put in a proposal for development that could cause great destruction to the river and every animal that relies on it. The personhood mechanism would dictate that the proposal must first be considered by the First Nations groups of the area; the company, Council, your local Mayor – no matter their money and their power, they would first need the permission of local Elders before drawing blood from the river. They would need to talk to the river, and listen to the river.
I believe that’s the only way we’re going to save these two most important rivers in Australia, the Barwon and Darling rivers. If we don’t give them the standing of personhood, protection and guardianship, like the Whanganui River, they will die.
I know it’s a long road ahead, and I probably won’t be around to see the end goal. After all, it took 120 years of trying for the Whanganui to be granted personhood. But it’s important to take the first steps. That’s why early next year I plan to bring representatives of First Nations groups to Whanganui, to learn more about how to seek rights for the Barwon and Darling rivers.