Academic journal article Oceania

The Waikato River: Changing Properties of a Living Maori Ancestor

Academic journal article Oceania

The Waikato River: Changing Properties of a Living Maori Ancestor

Article excerpt

Rivers and other sources of water used to be part of the commons, but currently, both are widely contested around the globe. This paper is concerned with the case of the Waikato River in New Zealand. The Maori people living in this river's valley consider it as an eponymous ancestor, but over the years colonial policies have turned their river into a property object that can be alienated and even traded. As a consequence, the Waikato people have had no choice but to dispute and challenge the ownership of the river that is claimed by the government. The neoliberal policies of the New Zealand government that triggered Waikato Maori to submit a counterclaim of ownership of the river and the water flowing through it indicate that legal ownership is claimed mainly to secure Maori rangatiratanga or authority over their ancestral resources. Although the link between (post)colonial policies and legal claims of ownership is rarely as direct as it is in this case, the general context of colonial failure to uphold indigenous rights and customary law is not unique in the global era that is characterized by climate change and a structural shortage of water (Wagner 2013).

The commodification of water in the history of industrial societies with market economies has not only entailed the use of water for commercial purposes, but it has also introduced a view of water that focuses primarily on its ability to provide measurable services to community. This modern notion of water emerged in the context of competing claims over bodies of water, which caused governments to enclose water, to commodify it, and sometimes even to privatize it. Indeed, since it became necessary to establish guidelines for the fair distribution of water, water has not only become a commodity, but it has simultaneously become a contested object of ownership (Strang 2012).

Notwithstanding the commodification and propertization of water, it is necessary to avoid a sharp contrast between custom and commodity, between a spiritual conception of water and the commercial exploitation of water, or between pre-industrial or 'indigenous' conceptualizations of the commons and the seemingly irreversible global trend towards privatization of the public domain. In environmental discourses, there is a tendency to classify relationships with water as either spiritual or commercial, but this polarization is incorrect to the extent that it fails to recognize the economic aspects of pre-industrial interactions with water (Strang 2008:253-4). After all, indigenous peoples also maintained economic relations with their rivers and other sources of water in the past. By the same token, it is difficult to deny the emotional or even spiritual dimension of non-indigenous engagements with water (e.g. Ward 2011). What differentiates indigenous and non-indigenous relations with water more critically is a transition from relatively small-scale interactions with water to more intensive forms of engagement that build on a vision of human dominance over nature and which necessitates the promotion of economic growth.

The intensification of social relations with rivers and other water sources implies that there are winners and losers (Franco, Mehta, and Veldwisch 2013). In many countries, indigenous peoples have suffered most from the enhanced pressure on the natural environment ensuing from a history of colonization. Very frequently, they have been dispossessed of their lands and water resources by colonial settlers, which forced them to challenge the appropriation of their land and waters in courts of law. In the legal domain of western societies, they were confronted with a transformation of their natural resources into property objects. Given the personification of distinctive features of the natural environment in many indigenous cosmologies, however, it is rather peculiar to think of land and water as alienable property in indigenous worldviews. Rivers and other waterways especially are often conceptualized as living ancestors, who have their own life force and spiritual strength that cannot be owned in a legal sense. …

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