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  • Ranbir Singh Atwal

The Whanganui River: Pioneering Environmental Personhood

The Journey to Legal Personhood

The recognition of the Whanganui River as a legal person was the culmination of one of New Zealand's longest-running legal battles, spanning over 160 years. The indigenous Māori tribes of the Whanganui region had been engaged in tireless negotiations with the New Zealand government, seeking to protect the river from environmental degradation and to have their rights and connection to the river acknowledged.

The groundbreaking legislation, known as the Te Awa Tupua (Whanganui River Claims Settlement) Act 2017, established the river as a legal entity, with all the rights, duties, and liabilities of a legal person. This means that the river can own property, incur debts, and petition the court through its guardians—one appointed by the Māori and another by the government—to represent its interests and well-being.

Global Impact and Implications

The legal personhood of the Whanganui River represents a paradigm shift in environmental law and protection. It challenges traditional legal frameworks that view nature as property and provides a model for integrating indigenous perspectives into legal systems. This innovative approach has inspired similar initiatives worldwide, where other natural entities have been granted legal rights, including rivers, forests, and ecosystems, signaling a growing recognition of the need for a more holistic approach to environmental protection.

Lessons for the Future

The recognition of the Whanganui River as a legal person teaches us that nature can be a subject of the law, not just an object to be governed by it. This shift invites us to reimagine our relationship with the natural world, moving from dominion over nature to a partnership with it. It also highlights the importance of listening to and incorporating indigenous knowledge and perspectives in environmental governance, recognising the deep connections between culture, spirituality, and conservation.

Moving Forward

As we face escalating environmental challenges, the story of the Whanganui River offers hope and direction. It reminds us that innovative solutions and meaningful change are possible when we respect and learn from the wisdom of indigenous cultures and when we view the natural world as a community to which we belong, rather than a commodity to be exploited.

By embracing the lessons of the Whanganui River, we can work towards a more sustainable and just world, where the rights of nature and the rights of indigenous peoples are recognised and respected. Let us carry forward the spirit of Te Awa Tupua as we navigate the challenges of the 21st century, remembering always that we are the river, and the river is us

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