We Are the World

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New Zealand—Aotearoa, as it is known to the indigenous Maori people—the Whanganui River is now a legal person.

In a land where corporations are considered people, it’s a
bit of a leap to imagine nature attaining the same status. But as Brendan
Kennedy reports for Cultural Survival Quarterly (December
, in New Zealand–Aotearoa,
as it is known to the indigenous M?ori people–the Whanganui River
is now a legal person.

“Indigenous peoples around the world often struggle with
governments that do not recognize their view of the natural environment,”
writes Kennedy. Where the M?ori strive to conserve and enhance, non-M?ori
typically seek to industrialize and maximize profit. Thus, indigenous
worldviews often directly conflict with non-indigenous practices of property
ownership. Awarding the river personhood status, then, is a significant victory
for the M?ori.

According to the new agreement, the river will have two
guardians–one appointed by the Whanganui Iwi tribe and one by the British
Crown–that promote the physical, ecological, spiritual, and cultural rights of
the river.

Such an agreement has few precedents, however. While
the news brings hope, Kennedy warns of the possibility that the river’s
guardians might restrict Whanganui Iwi rights to the river with no room for
recourse. Still, he calls the agreement cause for “cautious optimism as
Indigenous Peoples continue to fight for the recognition of their views of the
natural world.”

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