‘I am the river; the river is me’, what it means for Conservation?

What will be the implications of attributing essentially secular person-hood to a natural process, a River, for example? Was it even something Maori people wanted for the Whanganui river as such? How will this new development influence the secular notion of ‘nature’ and vice versa? How it challenges the idea of ‘natural resources management’ as we know it? Will it bring any hope for dysfunctional and ‘native’ hating European approach of nature ‘conservation’

These are the questions I’m exploring since last week. And I’d love to share a brief note from what is gathered so far.

First of all, technically speaking, the New Zealand parliament did acknowledge Whanganui River as a legal person.

Of course, the 170-year old political battle of Indigenous people was not only about securing equal status for a river to a human person, the kind of legal person-hood enjoyed by incorporated entities (companies for instance).

The Maori people consider themselves as an indivisible part of nature; as a people, they consider the rivers, the mountains, the sea as members of their kin, their ancestors. But unfortunately, there is no scope of recognizing such a relationship within secular law. So, they had to choose an ‘approximation in law’, as one of the leaders said.

Secular ‘personhood’ for the Nature?

The ‘approximation’ of course granted the River ‘its own legal identity with all the corresponding rights, duties and liabilities of a legal person.’ But the NZ parliament agreed to do more by recognizing the river as an ‘ancestral’ river of Whanganui people; as a ‘person’ the River will be essentially considered as a member of the Whanganui people, not otherwise. Thus, the legislation also effectively says that from now on the rivers’ ‘interest’ will be represented by the indigenous people.

Technically, under the English common law, the Whanganui River is now a ‘minor’ person who needs to be represented by two guardians before the law. Supposedly, on behalf of this minor person, the guardians are entitled to sue anyone violating this persons’ rights. What if anyone invokes the rivers’ ‘liability’ in a case of a flood? Maybe it sounds naïve as much as the person-hood of the River seems amazing. How exactly will the things be played out in the court of law? That is something to see in the coming years.

What interests me more is, how this new development will be translated globally in different contexts. Moreover, how diverse form it will take if people in countries with the diminished participation of the citizens in the government try to peruse this political path of reclaiming their relationship with nature?

But one thing we can be sure about is, in absence of effective direct participatory government, in these times of judicial activism, courts in many countries will step in where ecological degradation is an epidemic. Citing the parliamentary precedent from NZ, an Indian court already tried to declare Ganga and Jamuna Rivers as ‘human person’. Turns out, ancestral status as goddesses is not protecting the rivers from pollution and encroachment

The Maori Message

So, this new development has all the potentials to be a stepping-stone for a new political path of reclaiming the relationship with nature, and for a legal one also. But if it is to be, it is totally up to the people, a common law court can’t deliver it. For the Maori people, it took almost two centuries of struggle. In spite of that, they were faced the Hobson’s choice of ‘legal status as a person’ for their natural kin. And they took it. Because in New Zealand, probably their leaders did not see themselves in a position to radically change the perceptions towards nature and ‘development’ in a Maori way.

While today we’re seeing people affiliated with ‘conservation’ movement, and ‘Natural Resource Management’ regimes across the world, and in general people who identify themselves as ‘liberal’ or ‘nature-loving’ are cheering this legislation as ‘victory’; I think it is important to note what a Maori MP said to us, he said ”It is not that we’ve changed our worldview, but people are catching up to seeing things the way that we see them.”

As far as I’ve read through interviews of members of the different Maori communities, the message is very clear to me; a River is not a ‘resource’ you are entitled to ‘control’ or ‘manage’, just let her be and live respectfully.

 

PHOTO: The Whanganui River. Mount Ruapehu can partly be seen at the top right of the scene. Photo by James Shook. Source: Wikimedia Commons

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Mohammad Arju

Conservation Practitioner working in the Bay of Bengal region.