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Saturday, March 18, 2017

Riverine politics 

Whether it's about water rights, fishing rights, territorial boundaries or navigation there's no doubting the fact that rivers often have a political life, or at least that they are dragged into the political wranglings of humans. As we lurch into the anthropocene, or whatever word we use to describe the now established planetary dominion of humans and its associated environmental devastation, we might hope for new ways of looking at rivers. Looking after rivers might be a start. The academic trend of querying the nature/culture binary has invited in all sorts of new and creative ways of thinking, and I anticipate that the Whanganui River may well feature in conference papers and the like now that it (if that's the correct pronoun) has achieved the same 'legal rights as human being'. This follows a successful Maori court action that claimed the river as an ancestor. Will it catch on? I know there are similarly strong companion feelings among the indigenous populations of the Amazon - but what does it really mean this river-become-human thing? How will it enact its now human-like rights, duties and liabilities without the intervention of its human guardians? What if all rivers decide (?) to become human? And is it just one-way traffic? Perhaps the move is part of a much wider set of trends in how we think about the world after we've named it. Gone are the days of explorers who traversed the globe in pursuit of new ones to name. Those efforts have now turned to space exploration. Yet some ancient rivers are still associated with the divine, and some, like the Whanganui, are intimately entwined with people's sense of who they are. Dragging the river into court seems a bit like recruiting it into the human realm, to grant it rights seems anthropcentric, yet at the same time what the elders say seems to be raising its status, acknowledging the importance of rivers in their own right which is surely a good thing.

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