An American professor travelling the world doing research for a book believes the Whanganui River Claims Settlement will be the most interesting case she studies.
Dana Zartner is an activist focused on environmental justice and the rights of nature who was inspired to write the book after the 2016 United States election.
Zartner is not happy with efforts to overturn environmental legislation since Donald Trump became President and her book will focus on innovative legal advocacy for the environment.
The Te Awa Tupua (Whanganui River Claims Settlement) Act 2017 meant the Whanganui River was granted personhood, receiving the same rights as human beings.
Zartner says she is trying to discover what the passing of this legislation means.
“The question that everybody always asks me is whether or not this can work elsewhere.
“Is it particular to the Whanganui River and New Zealand or can we take what’s happening here and use it as a platform to advocate for something like this in other places?”
Zartner grew up in rural Minnesota, US, then spent time in Montana before settling in Northern California where she teaches at the University of San Francisco.
She was formerly a lawyer and has studied international relations, international law and political science.
Zartner based herself in Whanganui for three weeks, during which time she spoke to local iwi, who she said were very open with her.
“For the iwi, this idea of the river as a person is not new. It’s something that’s part of their culture and their spirituality and their history,” Zartner says.
“Te Awa Tupua doesn’t mean boats can’t go on the river, it means when we think about how to use it, things that are important need to be taken into account, such as its values.”
Zartner’s book is untitled and does not yet have a potential release date, but she hopes to have it completed within a year.
Before she can make a start, Zartner’s travels will take her to India, Kenya and a yet-to-be-determined country in Europe.
Zartner was aware of Te Awa Tupua very early on and it is not the first movement of environmental personhood.
Ecuador and Bolivia were among the first countries to successfully implement the right of nature legal movement and others have cases ongoing.
These include India regarding the Ganges River and Colombia in relation to the Amazon River.
Zartner said New Zealand is leading the way on the right of nature.
“If the Mt Taranaki legislation comes through and it is officially given rights as well, there will be three big entities here with detailed legislation outlining what this means.
“That’s including Te Urewera as well which was a natural forest already and is a little bit different.”
Zartner liked the small size of Whanganui, having spent a week in Wellington beforehand, and found it easy to talk to everyone she needed to.
While here she cruised on the Waimarie Paddle Steamer and took a trip up-river to Pipiriki, with plans to go on a long canoe trip next time she visits.
Zartner described the US’ environmental status as dire and said if something similar to Te Awa Tupua happened there, it would cause much disagreement.
“I assumed there were local council meetings in Whanganui where people were yelling at each other about this and there was a really big disagreement,” she says.
“Apparently that didn’t happen at all and the vast majority of submissions that were received before the settlement was passed were in favour of the river receiving this right.”
Zartner left Whanganui yesterday, flying to Auckland and preparing to fly home soon after.
Despite enjoying her time in the River City, she said the help she received was varied in its usefulness and put that down to things being tricky as it’s all so new.
“All of my questions about how this is going to work were met with answers from people saying they’re not sure yet,” Zartner says.
“How is this going to play out in the future? Everyone’s still waiting to see.”