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Blankestijn, Wouter and Martin, Anna, 2018. Testing the (legal) waters: interpreting the political representation of a river with rights in New Zealand : “let’s talk to the river, instead of talking about the river”. Second cycle, A2E. Uppsala: SLU, Dept. of Urban and Rural Development



In 2017, after protracted litigation between Māori iwi (tribe) and the Crown, the Whanganui River in Aotearoa/New Zealand was granted the status of a ‘legal person’. The river is described as an indivisible and living whole, so-called Te Awa Tupua. As a legal person, it includes all physical and metaphysical elements and has the right to flourish in order to maintain its health and wellbeing. Its interests are represented by two appointed ‘human faces’ and other actors including a strategy group.

Potentially fraught with problems of misrepresentation, as well as a host of philosophical issues on speaking on behalf of an arguably “voiceless” and vulnerable actor, communicative problems arise how to actually politically represent a natural-cultural entity in practice. While the postcolonial context is unique and carries along dimensions of justice to the Māori, the development may also be understood against an ecocentric background. This includes the worldwide movement of earth jurisprudence, which advocates for giving rights and political agency to nature. We investigate by which epistemic and ontological claims the agency, and thereby the interests of the river are planned to be realised in the deliberative arena and inform policy.

This thesis offers a qualitative, phenomenological study of how the different views on politically representing the river are juxtaposed, and how they are practically and communicatively manifested. In New Zealand we conducted eight semi-structured interviews with a selection of the appointed representative actors and the people who either appointed or advise them. A thematic analysis shows how the representative actors put an emphasis on a holistic view on, and a personal connection to the river, which both serve as a preferred moral relation in order to represent. Moreover, the concept of ‘legal personhood’ gives further standing to the river, but brings about different connotations.

The findings are theoretically deepened using (political) representation theory, which shows (1) a pre-political relation based on a ‘communicative ethic’, internalising the river’s interests and (2) a political representative practice making both the river’s interests and the relations to it present by a deliberative process. This is aimed to result in a sustainable, reciprocal relationship with the river. To conclude, this study offers an empirical exploration on how the recognition of the rights of nature are implemented and given meaning to, and shows the importance of discursive plurality and ethical relations on top of the legal aspect to bring about an ecocentric paradigm shift.

Main title:Testing the (legal) waters: interpreting the political representation of a river with rights in New Zealand
Subtitle:“let’s talk to the river, instead of talking about the river”
Authors:Blankestijn, Wouter and Martin, Anna
Supervisor:Von Essen, Erica
Examiner:Calderon, Camilo and Hallgren, Lars
Volume/Sequential designation:UNSPECIFIED
Year of Publication:2018
Level and depth descriptor:Second cycle, A2E
Student's programme affiliation:NM026 Environmental communication and management - Master's programme
Supervising department:(NL, NJ) > Dept. of Urban and Rural Development
(LTJ, LTV) > Dept. of Urban and Rural Development
Keywords:earth jurisprudence, rights of nature, political representation, ecocentrism, human-nature communication, river management, indigenous justice, environmental justice, communicative ethic, thematic analysis, New Zealand
Permanent URL:
Subject. Use of subject categories until 2023-04-30.:Nature conservation and land resources
Deposited On:17 Sep 2018 10:50
Metadata Last Modified:20 May 2020 10:53

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