"There is a saying: 'I am the river and the river is me.' I live close to the river and it's important for many reasons. The first of them is that we see the river as an ancestor. Moreover, as we see it as an ancestor, we don't see ourselves separate from it. This feeling is present in our way of thinking and in everything we do. The river is also important as it provides us with food; it's a place for leisure and also a means of transportation. And the river is not important only to us. It is also important for other Maori, and for all those using the river in some way. However, there is this generational connection between the river and us. And, within the last years, it has being used for power generation, which means we are changing its course. It has also been used for pharmaceutical waste, thus contaminating the river, polluting it. All that is harmful for the river's health, so, we have to protect it."
At 38, Rãwiri Tinirau is the Co-Director of the Te Atawhai Te Ao, a Research Institute for Environment and Health, and Deputy Chairperson of Ngā Tāngata Tiaki Whanganui, a governance body that establishes the Whanganui nation as responsible for the Whanganui River, the river of which Rãwiri speaks so much. A representative of Te Āti Haunui-a-Pāpārangi, one of several nations, or iwi, which is how the several Maori nations living in New Zealand are called, Rãwiri and his people have been fighting for the governance of the Whanganui River for years. With 290 km, the river is the longest of the country, the spring of the river is in the Tongariro Mountain and it flows onto the sea. It is also the most navigable of Aotearoa, as the Maori people call New Zealand.
Unlike what we are used to seeing, for the Maori, there are several nations within the Maori nation, the Polynesian indigenous people who live in New Zealand. The nations (iwi) are composed of hapu, groups made of indigenous sub-tribes and several extended families, which, in turn, are called whānau, which is the oldest form of organization of these nations.
In 2017, the Maori won a fight that lasted more than 140 years in defense of the Whanganui River. In an unprecedented decision, the New Zealander government granted the river the same rights as a person. This means that if someone pollutes or attacks the course of their waters, they may suffer the same punishment and consequences of an attack towards a country's citizen. The river can also file claims before a court, through its custodians, against the pollution of its waters without the need to prove that this pollution has an impact on the population, as was previously required.
According to Rãwiri, the river has been a way of keeping its people together, since most of the 12,000 people comprising the Te Āti Haunui-a-Pāpārangi iwi do not necessarily live near the river, but in other cities of New Zealand or even around the world. "Most of our population is in their 20s, but we also have several older members living near the river, which results in major challenges: how do we keep connected with these people? No matter where they live, we all need to act on what needs to be immediately done to improve the quality of life of the river and of those living near the river."
The Te Āti Haunui a Pāpārangi and other iwi nations want to take care of their ancestor’s health, the Whanganui River. "We are characterizing the people who use the river and listening to what they have to say about how the river is being used to create a strategy together to ensure its health and expand its protection," Räwiri explains, who is a post-graduate in business and administration from Massey University. With a graduation in accounting, he says he ventured in post-graduate studies because they offered him a job, but today he realizes that it was the right choice to make.
He states that, for the Maori, it is important to have a person from the tribe involved in business, and now he runs an independent research institute that needs his managerial knowledge. "Now I see how much the study helps in my work because our people’s values need to influence business decisions, they need to influence the decisions taken about the river. At the institute, we research health and the environment because we see a connection between these two issues, as one reflects on the other. "
For Rãwiri, who was in Brazil for the first time for the 8th World Water Forum, it was an opportunity to learn and understand different perspectives from his own, as there are also people who depend on the river with different points of view on the Whanganui River. "But there are some values that are common to all of us, no matter where we come from, and I think those values are very clear to me at this event. My people and I have this long-term vision, which is our own, and that considers the other. We may not see results in this life, but we know that what we are doing now will contribute to the lives of future generations and that is what makes water so important to us."