WHANGANUI – The Whanganui River is surging into the ocean, fattened from days of winter rain and yellowed from the earth and clay that has collapsed into its sides. Logs and debris hurtle past as dusk looms.
Sixty-one-year-old Tahi Nepia is calmly paddling his outrigger canoe, called a waka ama in his Indigenous Māori language, as it is buffeted from side to side.
Before venturing out, he makes sure to first ask permission from his ancestors in a prayer, or karakia. It's the top item on his safety list. He says his ancestors inhabit the river and each time he dips his paddle into the water he touches them.
“You are giving them a mihimihi, you are giving them a massage," Nepia says. "That’s how we see that river. It’s a part of us.”
In 2017, New Zealand passed a groundbreaking law granting personhood status to the Whanganui River. The law declares that the river is a living whole, from the mountains to the sea, incorporating all its physical and metaphysical elements.
The law was part of a settlement with the Whanganui Iwi, comprising Māori from a number of tribes who have long viewed the river as a living force. The novel legal approach set a precedent that has been followed by some other countries including Bangladesh, which in 2019 granted all its rivers the same rights as people.
In June, five years after the New Zealand law was passed, The Associated Press followed the 290-kilometer (180-mile) river upstream to find out what its status means to those whose lives are entwined with its waters. For many, its enhanced standing has come to reflect a wider rebirth of Māori culture and a chance to reverse generations of discrimination against Māori and degradation of the river.
Whanganui Māori have a saying: Ko au te awa, ko te awa ko au: I am the river, and the river is me.
Nepia, a caretaker at a Māori immersion school, is among a group of expert waka ama paddlers who have been training for the World Sprint Champs that are currently taking place in Britain. He was due to compete in the over-60 age group both solo and as part of a crew of six.
Nepia learned how to swim on the river when his uncle threw him in at age 8. Roll on your back and float with the current, his uncle told him, and Nepia did, grinding to a stop where the water ran shallow over the stones beneath.
“You get back up, jump off the bank and float down again. That’s how it was,” he says.
He first paddled on the river in a traditional Māori long canoe in 1979, when he and about 20 of his buddies at the slaughterhouse where they worked got together for a regatta celebrating Waitangi Day, which commemorates the 1840 treaty signed between the British and Māori.
Considered the nation’s founding document, the Treaty of Waitangi has long been a source of contention. For the past 30 years, New Zealand’s government has been negotiating with tribes that have brought grievances under the treaty, which guaranteed sovereignty over their traditional lands and fisheries. The Whanganui River deal is among dozens of settlements forged in recent years.
At its mouth in the town of Whanganui, the river is permanently discolored these days from the erosion that has come from turning what was once forest along the banks into farmland. The excessive sediment suffocates fish and plant life. The remains of weirs that Māori once built to fish for eel-like lamprey can still be seen, but the lamprey are gone.
“It’s the raping of the land. It’s simple. We need a reality check. We need to grow trees instead of chopping them down,” Nepia says. “The water shouldn’t be like that.”
A half-hour drive inland from the mouth, Gerrard Albert points to the bucolic riverbank spot where his people live, an ancestral settlement that was never sold and is home to about 120.
He says the river and the surrounding lands have their own authority, or mana.
“They dictate the terms for human use and occupation,” he says. “And for too long, we’ve assumed it’s been the other way around.”
Albert, 54, was the lead negotiator for Whanganui Māori in getting the river’s personhood recognized by lawmakers after his tribe battled for the river’s rights for over 140 years.
Albert says the status is a legal fiction, a construct more commonly used to give something like a corporation legal standing.
While the law states that the river enjoys the same rights, powers, duties and liabilities of any other person, there are limitations. For instance, Albert points out, the river can't be sued if somebody drowns in its waters in the way a homeowner might be sued for not fencing a pool.
But Albert also sees it as an opportunity for a permanent shift in thinking.
“This is a political rearrangement of values,” he says. “This is Indigenous rights. Indigenous people leading toward better change for everybody.”
So what has personhood, or Te Awa Tupua, meant in practical terms? Albert points to one example.
After the law passed, he says, the local council assumed it was business as usual when they tried to build a bridge across the river for cyclists and pedestrians. They hadn’t considered they now needed to consult first with the tribe and the community.
As a result the bridge structure ended up sitting in a field during two years of delays before it was finally dropped into place and opened in 2020. Albert says the hapū — the affected tribal clan — and the community pushed for improvements like protected fishing areas, speed limits on nearby roads and the addition of restrooms.
“These are small things, and the hapū didn’t really have a problem with the bridge going across. They had a problem with the process in the lead-up,” Albert says. “Now the expectation is that the process will never happen in that way again.”
Albert has been involved in another, much bigger river project, a refurbishment of two wharves and other improvements at the Whanganui Port costing about 50 million New Zealand dollars, or $31 million.
This time the tribe is leading the project with the Whanganui District Council and others working with them. The council has said all decision-making will be guided by the river’s legally enshrined value system, and has pledged “to work collaboratively for the river’s benefit.”
Before personhood, Albert says, the tribe constantly had to make the case for protecting the river before an ever-changing cast of local councilors and politicians in the capital, Wellington. The people who made the rules, he says, were the planners, the lawyers and the businessfolk.
Now, he says, the tribe is more able to act like the native New Zealand pigeon, or kererū, which likes to perch contentedly after gorging on berries instead of scratching around for crumbs. Now it’s the rule-makers who are legally obliged to come to the tribe and the community with their plans and to prioritize the health of the river.
Such treaty settlements have generally been supported by both conservative and liberal lawmakers, seen as a way to redress colonial wrongdoings and improve outcomes for Māori, who long have lagged behind in economic, social and health statistics.
The Whanganui River settlement, which also included about NZ$80 million ($50 million) in financial redress and millions more for the river's future health, was championed by conservative lawmaker Chris Finlayson and passed in a voice vote without objection.
But more recently, some voices are saying change risks going too far. Many conservative lawmakers oppose proposals like renaming New Zealand with its Māori name, Aotearoa, or granting Māori co-governance over the nation’s water infrastructure.
Albert says national politics is by nature adversarial, but that’s just another construct and it doesn’t need to be that way on the river. His latest project is working as part of a group of 17 stakeholder organizations to chart the river's future.
“This is truly about giving power back to the community,” he says.
To follow the river as it wends inland, motorists turn off State Highway 4 and take the hilly and narrow Whanganui River Road. Nothing much seems to have changed here since 75 years ago, when rural towns and farms were ascendant in New Zealand.
At the Rivertime Lodge, where cyclists and walkers stay in simple cabins or pitch tents on the riverbank during the summer, manager Frances Marshall is puttering about in fluffy orange slippers. She prefers the feel of the soil beneath her bare feet most of the time but makes concessions on colder winter days.
On her chin, Marshall wears a traditional Māori tattoo, a moko kauae. She considers it an integral part of her spiritual being and her connection to the river. Although her nephew did the tattooing just a few months ago, on Marshall’s 61st birthday, she feels like it has been a part of her for much longer.
“It’s hard to describe. It’s like this person inside you wanting to get out,” says Marshall.
Marshall has been around the river all her life. Her father and grandfather were of British descent and were one of the last families to venture into the relatively difficult terrain to clear brush for farming and breeding sheep.
She remembers horseback riding along the river at age 5. Some days she’d help her mother take lunch to the sheep shearers and would watch in fascination as the men deftly threw a whole fleece across a table and plucked out the rough wool before rolling it and putting it into a press.
Marshall says that in addition to the erosion, there have been problems in the past with people dumping stolen cars and trash into the river. Now, with an increased focus on the river’s health, landowners and tribes are replanting the hills to reduce further erosion and restore the natural habitat her own family once cleared.
Around the lodge, Marshall has been planting flax bushes and native trees like the distinctive, yellow-blossomed kōwhai. Across the road, her brother planted 10,000 native manuka trees, which he plans to turn into a honey farm.
Marshall was elated when the river, or awa, was recognized.
“Over the years, our awa, she’s been sick,” Marshall says. “And so that happening, for a lot of us, means that things can be done now to help heal her.”
Grant Cooper is land and partnerships manager at Horizons Regional Council, which has worked for 18 years with farmers along the river on reversing erosion and other improvements. They include fencing off streams to contain cattle and sheep waste, which increases the levels of unwanted nitrates and bacteria.
It’s a balance, Cooper acknowledges, because farmers still need to make money. One solution has been to convert dairy and sheep farms into forests for harvesting, usually pine, redwood or manuka trees.
Planting trees can reduce soil erosion into the river by 90%, Cooper says, although it does leave land vulnerable for several years between the time a stand of trees is felled and when new seedlings take hold.
Council figures show about 51% of the land around the river is currently native forest. About 31% is used for grazing livestock, 8% for commercial forestry and the rest for other uses.
The council’s water-quality monitoring shows that suspended sediment is the river's single biggest problem, followed by nitrate toxicity.
Mike Cranstone, president of the local chapter of the lobby group Federated Farmers, acknowledges that decades-ago clearing led to erosion and silting. But he says blaming multigenerational farming families for all the river’s problems is not overly helpful.
“Most farmers' ambition is to improve the land and leave the land in a better state for their next generation,” Cranstone says.
Farther inland, through the Whanganui National Park, the river winds through forest. Gone are the farms, and the water runs cleaner.
Tourists ride jetboats or paddle canoes to the famed “Bridge to Nowhere,” built across the river in 1936 to provide access to farmland given to soldiers after World War I. But the soil wasn’t suitable and the last farmers walked away in 1942, and the concrete arched span stands eerily alone today after decades of forest regrowth.
As the river loops toward Tongariro National Park, it becomes all but inaccessible due to dense forest and ravines — but not for Adam Daniel, a scientist and adventurer, a kind of Indiana Jones of the river.
At the end of a remote road, he straps into the four-seater off-road buggy he’s been towing and speeds off along an impossibly narrow track, careening over downed trees, up banks and through streams.
Originally from Washington state, where he studied Columbia River dams' impact on salmon, Daniel now monitors the Whanganui and dozens of other rivers for Fish & Game New Zealand, which collects license fees from hunters and anglers to safeguard the habitat.
Work often merges with play for Daniel, 48, who likes nothing more than to bring along fly-fishing gear and cast a line.
“It’s our best backcountry river, and it has amazing trout fishing, great scenery, and I personally come here and do a lot of hunting as well,” he says.
But go downstream just 40 kilometers (25 miles), and the trout and other fish can’t survive because it's too muddied and too warm in the summer, he says.
Daniel's monitoring has found more sediment even in the river's upper reaches than in nearby waterways. Forestry, four-wheel-drive trails and other human impacts are factors, but there’s something else as well.
Near the Whanganui's source, Daniel points out where a power company is sucking out water as part of the Tongariro Power Scheme. Built about 50 years ago, the scheme draws from some 36 area rivers and streams to generate electricity and deposits most of it into a lake.
The water from this particular intake isn’t always used directly for generation but sometimes to cool a manmade lake that’s part of the scheme, Daniel says. When the water is returned to the river, it can come back warmer and muddier.
Last year 81% of New Zealand's electricity came from renewable sources, thanks in large part to this and other big hydro schemes. It’s a positive story the government likes to tout, but today such projects would be unlikely to get regulatory approval because of their environmental toll.
Genesis Energy, which owns the Tongariro Power Scheme, says it draws on average 20% of the Whanganui’s flow from several intakes to power over 30,000 households.
Chief operations officer Rebecca Larkin says Genesis tries to mitigate the environmental impact, avoiding taking water from certain areas and implementing weekslong “zero water-take periods” each year when the river is low and warmer. She notes the company is among the groups working alongside Albert on stewardship of the river.
But Daniel says water is taken for cooling even when Genesis pauses removal for electricity generation. He and others hope the company will be forced to make major improvements — or leave the river entirely — when its regulatory license for the power scheme expires in 2039.
Daniel had mixed feelings at first about the river being declared a living being.
“As a scientist I always try to rely on rules and regulations to protect a river. So the personhood status was a real foreign concept to me,” Daniel says. “But what it has done is attract a lot of attention to the river, which has been really helpful in highlighting the issues.”
“I’m certainly coming around to it,” he adds. “I’m hoping that it really will turn the tide and help save the river.”
Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.