Whanganui River

Guarded by Ned Tapa 

Māori tribal leader Ned Tapa sees himself as a guardian of the Whanganui River in Aotearoa –  as the Māori call New Zealand. It is the first river in the world to be recognized as a legal person. Ned is happy to see that the fight for the river’s legal recognition has sparked a global movement for the rights of nature. ‘It’s catching on around the world.’ 

‘It’s about saving rivers, saving the planet,’ Ned Tapa says at the beginning of I Am the River, the River Is Me. In this breathtakingly beautiful documentary, Ned undertakes a canoe trip down the Whanganui River with a group of friends, family and activists. The Te Awa Tupua (Whanganui River Claims Settlement) Act of 2017 confers legal personality on the river system, giving it a unique legal status. The Māori fought for these rights for over 150 years.

For Ned, the central idea behind this is guardianship instead of ownership. ‘With ownership you can buy and sell tomorrow,’ he says. ‘With guardianship you’re there for as long as you have to be. I’m just the caretaker for a period of time while I’m here.’ Ned explains that the Māori have a spiritual connection to their ancestors, ‘through the mountains and the waters and the land that surrounds us’. Ned: ‘In our eyes, everything in this life has a force of life within. We call it mauri. An unseen force, but yet a force that you can feel.’ ‘Being on the river brings mauri back,’ Ned says. ‘Our life force sometimes becomes unbalanced. On the river is where we come to balance up. Each day we’re on the river, we are getting stronger.’

The Whanganui River has started a global movement in which rights are granted to rivers and lakes. Rights for nature is the world’s fastest growing legal movement. ‘It’s catching on around the world,’ Ned says. ‘And all of a sudden, our rivers are going to be looked at completely differently.’

I am the River, the River is Me is shown at the Movies that Matter Festival 2024, where Ned Tapa will be a special guest.