Credit: Department of Conservation, New Zealand

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

Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT) December 12, 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