Whanganui River of New Zealand became world first to be considered a legal person

New Zealand Whanganui River became the first in the Globe to be viewed as a legal person. New Zealand's third-longest river could soon be represented in court and had two guardians designated to speak on its side.

Whanganui, New Zealand: If human beings, due to the excess of their greed start exploiting natural resources, then some countries. Then some countries give legal rights to the rivers to fight against their cruelty which is done by human beings.

New Zealand Whanganui River became the first in the Globe to be viewed as a legal person. New Zealand’s third-longest river could soon be represented in court and had two guardians designated to speak on its side.

It was a move which even makes fun by the other countries and appreciated by Indigenous rights advocates and environmentalists alike.

But three years on, there’s a thought that winning legal personhood isn’t the end of the struggle to uphold Māori rights to the river. Albert, and others, are still facing the challenge of what happens after a river is seen as a legal person.

Being a child in the 1970s, Gerrard Albert played on the mudflats at the mouth of New Zealand’s Whanganui River wherever raw sewage from the nearby town spilt into the estuary and out to the ocean.

At low flow, he and his playmates would see pieces of toilet paper in the water and fun to one another: “That was the one I did yesterday.”

After arriving in New Zealand during the 1800s, British colonialists industrialized Whanganui River, long-drawn cherished by generations of Indigenous Māori. 

The river became contaminated by discharge, and land clearances and the shingle banks Albert’s grandmother remembered from her childhood were replaced with mud so wet you would sink up to your knees, due to gravel extraction.

Albert wasn’t worried about the sewage where they fished and played. But the disgraced river was emblematic of a more significant issue: a fight that stretched back to the 1870s to save the river and its relationship with Māori.

In 2017, that battle finally came to an end.

Two rivers in India also have been declared legal entities, and last year Bangladesh gave all its rivers legal rights. Environmental rights activists want Albert to speak at conferences. Indigenous groups want to know if that means the river can now sue people who pollute it.

Environmental law specialists see the Whanganui River decision as a shift not only for the people who live adjacent of the river but possibly further afield.

Jacinta Ruru, a specialist in environmental and Māori law at Otago University who is of Māori descent, says legal personhood describes a fundamental move from a Western to a Māori perspective — although new laws aren’t always required to change attitudes.

“The last centuries of years has been all through this colonization process of dismantling Indigenous cultures and surely not thinking of them as having anything to add to us in the world order,” she stated.

Whanganui River’s personhood is a start towards considering Māori and their world view.

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