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This New Zealand river now has the same legal rights as a human being

Britain’s Prince Harry paddles in a waka, or Maori war canoe, on the Whanganui River during a visit to Whanganui on May 14, 2015. (Marty Melville/AFP/Getty Images)

To the Maori, indigenous people who live along New Zealand’s Whanganui River, the water isn’t only sacred — it’s part of their being.

The community has a saying, “Ko au te awa. Ko te awa ko au.” In English, this means, “I am the river. The river is me.”

For years, the Maori people’s relationship with the waterway has been legally unrecognized despite their best efforts. But on Wednesday, the New Zealand Parliament passed a bill granting the river the same legal rights as a human being, BBC reported.

“I know the initial inclination of some people will say it’s pretty strange to give a natural resource a legal personality,” New Zealand’s Treaty Negotiations Minister Chris Finlayson told the BBC. “But it’s no stranger than family trusts, or companies or incorporated societies.”

During the early 1900s, however, visitors to New Zealand would pile on paddle boats to cruise down the country’s third-longest river. As years passed, taking kayaks or jet-boats down the twisting waterway became more fashionable, according to the “Rough Guide to New Zealand.” The movie “River Queen,” which starred Samantha Morton and Kiefer Sutherland, was even filmed on its waters.

“The tribes of Whanganui take their name, their spirit and their strength from the great river which flows from the mountains of the central North Island to the sea. For centuries the people have travelled the Whanganui River by canoe, caught eels in it, built villages on its banks, and fought over it,” according to website Te Ara, managed by the Manatū Taonga Ministry for Culture and Heritage.

But as the tourists came, the pollution grew.

“By 1970 the river was nearly dead,” the New Zealand Herald reported in 2011. One wastewater treatment plant operator, Phil Gilmore, said it suffered from “150 years of nonstop pollution.”

The river had no true legal representation, until now.

The Parliament’s decision on Wednesday means the river can now be recognized in court. It will be will be represented by two people, one from the New Zealand government and one from the Maori community.

“We have always believed that the Whanganui River is an indivisible and living whole … which includes all its physical and spiritual elements from the mountains of the central North Island to the sea,” Gerrard Albert, an Maori spokesman, told the Telegraph.

As Parliament member Adrian Rurawhe told Radio New Zealand, the Maori view the river’s well-being as directly linked to their own, making the bill personal.

The Maori have “fought for recognition of its relationship with the Whanganui River since the 1870s,” Finlayson told the Sydney Morning Herald, adding that it was the “longest running litigation in New Zealand’s history.”

The bill also included $80 million in financial redress and a $30 million fund that will be used to improve the river’s health, the New Zealand Herald reported.

Attendees of the third reading of the bill broke into song.

“It has been a long, hard battle,” Albert told the Telegraph. “While today we close the book on this part of our history, tomorrow we start writing a new one.”

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