I am the river, the river is me

From The Rutherford Lectures, 4:00 pm on 28 December 2014

Whanganui River with kayakers

Whanganui River with kayakers.

According to Dame Anne Salmond, the deed of settlement signed on 5 August 2015 between the Whanganui River iwi and the New Zealand Government is a revolutionary document. Overturning a history of conflict over river access and use, the agreement recognises Te Awa Tupua as a legal person with its own rights, and places it in a new relationship to humankind.

The River is described as a living whole running from the mountains to the sea, and its inextricable links to its people are expressed in the saying “Ko au te Awa, ko the Awa ko au” (I am the River, the River is me). Two people are chosen by the Crown and the iwi as Te Pou Tupua, the human face of the river, acting in its interests and on its behalf.

The use of water is subject to a review process intended to resolve the issues of rights and interests in it, and the Government position that no-one owns the water is given force by the document.

Arapuni Power Station

Arapuni Power Station on the Waikato River, operated by Mighty River Power.

In the final Rutherford Lecture, Dame Anne thinks of this agreement as a bridge between cultures, world views, and competing ideas of guardianship and governance. Exploring both recent debates (such as the one about the effect of privatisation of agencies like Mighty River Power, which came to prominence in the 2011 election campaign) and ancient history, she focuses on how the legal system forced iwi into taking up an unpopular stance on the issue of ownership of water. If they hadn’t declared ownership they would have been ignored by the legal and political process, and lost any claim to influence how waterways like the Waikato and Whanganui Rivers were to be administered.

The 2014 Rutherford Lectures: Rivers will be broadcast on Radio New Zealand National at 4pm on Sunday 28 December, repeated at 9pm on Tuesday 30 December 2014, and here, now: