Credit: Department of Conservation, New Zealand

This river in New Zealand is legally a person. Here's how it happened

Updated 9:43 PM ET, Fri December 11, 2020

Whanganui, New Zealand (CNN)As a child in the 1970s, Gerrard Albert played on the mud flats at the mouth of New Zealand's Whanganui River where raw sewage from the nearby town spilled into the estuary and out to the ocean.

At low tide, he and his playmates would see pieces of toilet paper in the water and joke to one another: "That was the one I did yesterday."
After arriving in New Zealand in the 1800s, British colonialists industrialized Whanganui River, long treasured by generations of Indigenous Māori. The river became polluted 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 bothered by the sewage where they fished and played. But the degraded river was emblematic of a bigger issue: a fight that stretched back to the 1870s to preserve the river and its relationship with Māori.
In 2017, that fight finally came to an end.
Credit: Julia Hollingsworth, CNN
Whanganui River became the first in the world to be considered a legal person. New Zealand's third-longest river could now be represented in court and had two guardians appointed to speak on its behalf.
It was a move mimicked by other countries and praised by Indigenous rights advocates and environmentalists alike.
But three years on, there's a sense 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.

A source of food, a single highway, a spiritual mentor

For hundreds of years, Māori lived in settlements along the Whanganui River, which translates to "big harbor" in Māori.
The 290 kilometer (180 mile) waterway was central to their lives. It was where they fished and lived. The water was used to treat the sick. They considered the river an ancestor -- it was "their source of food, their single highway, their spiritual mentor," according to a 1999 report on Māori rights to the Whanganui River.
Then, in the 1800s, British colonizers began settling all over New Zealand, including Whanganui.
It was a tense and often violent time. Huge swathes of land were bought in what are now seen as unfair deals -- in 1840, a British businessman bought 40,000 acres (16,200 hectares), an area almost three times the size of Manhattan -- in exchange for 700 pounds worth of goods, including muskets, umbrellas and musical instruments. Other land was violently confiscated from Māori who challenged the authority of the incoming British colonizers.
As they gained territory, the newcomers imposed new rules over the land and sea. Under English law, the river wasn't seen as one entity. It was seen as a patchwork of legally separate parts -- water and river beds and air space above the water -- all controlled by different laws. The parts of the river that were navigable, for instance, were legally separate from the parts that were not.
A Māori pa, or fortified village, on the Whanganui River, on the North Island of New Zealand in 1902.
Te Mataruru Marae -- or Māori communal place -- in Whanganui district in the 1880s. Photograph taken by the studio of William James Harding.
Right from the start, that was a problem. To Māori, the river was a single and indivisible entity and not something that could be owned. Although the river's resources could be used, only people who contributed to the community had the right to benefit. The local Māori even had a proverb they used to sum it up: "I am the river, and the river is me."
But as the Europeans -- or Pakeha as they are known in New Zealand -- took more control of the area, they increasingly destroyed what the river had been. They operated a steamer, took the river's gravel, released trout into the rivers for fishing and destroyed the old fishing weirs where Māori had fished for generations. Māori settlements were pushed back from the river to make way for new developments.
Under Māori belief, all things have mauri -- a life force and personality. When the river's water quality was degraded, the mauri of the river wasn't respected, in turn affecting the mauri of the local people, who relied on the river to sustain them.

Longest running litigation in New Zealand

For almost as long as settlers have been in Whanganui, local Māori fought to have their own view of the river recognized.
Back in 1870, Māori began petitioning the colonial government, asking them to uphold their rights. In the decades that followed, a steady stream of petitions were made to the government in New Zealand's capital Wellington. By the 1920s and 1930s, Albert's grandmother and her brothers and sisters contributed anything they could to the legal case.
"Our people weren't rich by any means," Albert said. "It was so fundamental to upholding our rights."
A paddle steamer at Pipiriki on the Whanganui River, circa 1910.