The Westernization of legal personhood for rivers: A discussion of Indigenous perspectives on river rights

My name is Gabrielle Plowens. I am pursuing a Master of Science in Nature, Society, and Environmental Governance at the University of Oxford with Brasenose College. My current research centers on the legal personhood model, with a focus on the implementation of Te Awa Tupua (Whanganui River Claims Settlement) in New Zealand. Throughout my time at Oxford and undergraduate years at the University of British Columbia, I researched and wrote on the Bolivia Law of Mother Earth, the moral case for animal personhood, the gendered impacts of Canadian Environmental Assessments, water governance practices, and resource development projects. My research areas expanded when I worked for the Smart Earth Project through which I focused on topics ranging from to digital technologies for climate change solutions. Alongside my academic pursuits, I have also worked in sales roles, promoting sustainable practices and products.\

Presentation Summary (25 minutes)
What do you think of you hear ‘legal personhood for rivers’? What comes to mind when you think of the Whanganui River in New Zealand? Join me in answering these questions. I invite you to come discuss what legal personhood for rivers entails and how it seeks to translate Indigenous ontologies of water into Western law. Based on a current Oxford MSc research project, this presentation will explore key concepts related to the Rights of Nature, Biocentrism, and Māori worldviews, by sparking discussion about these topics. My research will seek to answer the following questions: 1) Is the legal personhood model conducive and effective for creating allyships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous stakeholders that adequately represent the rights of rivers? 2) Do divergent stakeholder perspectives aid the assertion of nature-centric worldviews?

Research Summary:
This project explores legal personhood models for rivers at the intersection of Indigenous, and specifically Māori, allyships related to the Whanganui within Aotearoa through an analysis of Te Awa Tupua, which granted personhood to the Whanganui River in 2017. Although the Whanganui River has been extensively studied in academia (Argyrou & Hummels, 2019; Charpleix, 2018; Coombes, 2021; Hutchison, 2014; Unuigbe, 2022), there has been no exploration of what the Whanganui case study tells us about the relationship between Aotearoa’s government and non-Māori, and Māori stakeholders in Te Kōpuka. This project will look at these topics in more depth. The aim of the research will be twofold. First, it seeks to explore how the legal personhood models for rivers problematize or reinforce the representation of Indigenous stakeholders and the distribution of differential impacts and benefits intersecting with nature-centric worldviews, including more-than-human rights models. Second, it seeks to spark ongoing conversation about the challenges between Westernized legal river personhood models and Indigenous ontologies.