16/03/2017 11:25 AM AEDT | Updated 16/03/2017 3:44 PM AEDT

New Zealand Just Gave This River Human Rights

The first river-that-is-a-person in the world.

It is one fine looking person.
Tim Clayton via Getty Images
It is one fine looking person.

In a world first, a river in New Zealand has just been granted personhood.

This means that the river -- the third largest in New Zealand -- has legal rights and can be represented in court. It also means that its guardians will be legally obliged to act in its best interests.

The ruling by the New Zealand Government on Wednesday evening ends a 170-year-old debate between the Government and the local Maori people about the ownership of the river.

While the decision may seem strange to many, the concept is completely normal for the local Maori people, says New Zealand Labour MP Adrian Rurawhe. The sacred relationship between the local Wanganhui River iwi is reflected in the popular saying 'I am the river and the river is me'.

"The river as a whole is absolutely important to the people who are from the river and live on the river," he told Radio NZ.

"It's not that we've changed our world view, but people are catching up to seeing things how we see it."

Getty Images
The Whanganui River is sacred to the local Maori people.

The decision means that the river will no longer be the property of the New Zealand Government, who will also be handing over more than $100 million in damages and to establish a fund to restore the health of the river.

As the river cannot take itself to court, it has been granted two guardians -- one from the Crown and one from a Whanganui River iwi -- who will represent the river's interests in any legal proceedings and are charged with protecting the natural resource.

"I know the initial inclination of some people will say it's pretty strange to give a natural resource a legal personality," said New Zealand's Treaty Negotiations Minister, Chris Finlayson, according to the New Zealand Herald.

"But it's no stranger than family trusts, or companies or incorporated societies."

While it's the first river in the world to receive personhood, it's not completely without precedent.

In 2014, the New Zealand Government passed legislation giving the 2,000 square kilometre national park Te Urewera on the country's North Island legal status.

Ross Barnett
Te Urewera is also a person.