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e-ISSN: 1647-7251
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RIGHTS OF NATURE AS A POTENTIAL FRAMEWORK FOR THE
TRANSFORMATION OF MODERN POLITICAL COMMUNITIES
CARLOTA HOUART
carlotahouart@gmail.com
Bachelors degree in International Relations and a master’s degree in IR Peace, Security and
Development Studies from the Faculty of Economics of the University of Coimbra. She was a
junior researcher at the Centre for Social Studies of the University of Coimbra and is currently a
PhD researcher at Wageningen University (Netherlands) as part of the ERC-funded research
project “RIVERHOOD – Living Rivers and New Water Justice Movements”. Her current research
interests include Critical Political Ecology; Rights of Nature and Multispecies Justice; Critical IR
Theory and Post-Anthropocentrism; and Indigenous Ontologies and Knowledge Systems.
Abstract
This article focuses on the present context of the climate and environmental crises and how
these fundamentally challenge the inherently anthropocentric norms, conceptions and
practices of international politics and IR. I argue that, in order to confront the hegemonic,
anthropocentric mode of relationship with non-human nature that has led to these crises,
alternative frameworks need to be developed that might lead to a gradual transformation of
modern political communities. Departing from Critical IR Theory, I suggest that Andrew
Linklater’s and Robyn Eckersley’s critiques of Westphalia and proposals for its transformation
might be useful to understand how the emergent Rights of Nature movement may promote
such transformation. I look at two paradigmatic cases from the Rights of Nature movement
the Whanganui River case in Aotearoa New Zealand, on a local level; and Ecuador’s 2008
Constitution, on a national level to briefly reflect on the alternative understandings of
concepts such as community, subjecthood, agency, voice, rights, participation and
representation that they encourage. By expanding these concepts as to include the more-
than-human world, these RoN frameworks invite a transformation of modern systems of
thought and practice, and to a certain extent constitute a potential for the transformation
of modern political communities in ways that might enable a better response to the global
climate and environmental crises.
Keywords
International Relations; Political Community; Rights of Nature; Non-Human Beings; Climate
Crisis.
How to cite this article
Houart, Carlota (2022). Rights of Nature as a potential framework for the transformation of
modern political communities. In Janus.net, e-journal of international relations. Vol13, Nº. 1,
May-October 2022. Consulted [online] on the date of the last visit,
https://doi.org/10.26619/1647-7251.13.1.9
Article received on June 15, 2021 and accepted for publication on March 5, 2022
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Carlota Houart
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RIGHTS OF NATURE AS A POTENTIAL FRAMEWORK FOR THE
TRANSFORMATION OF MODERN POLITICAL COMMUNITIES
CARLOTA HOUART
Introduction
The climate and environmental crises pose significant challenges to international politics
and International Relations (IR). Global-warming, sea-level rise, extreme weather
events, ecosystem destruction and the sixth mass extinction phenomenon all render the
inseparability and interdependence of human societies and non-human life undeniably
clear. These processes of rapid global change directly challenge the Cartesian dualism
that arose in Europe during the Enlightenment period (Merchant, 1980) and that views
humanity as separate from and in control of nature a belief which has been central to
IR and its study of world politics ever since the development of the modern-states system
and of the capitalist world economy (Kavalski and Zolkos, 2016; Tickner, 1993). The lack
of timely, concerted and robust responses to these interweaving crises and all of their
ecological, social, economic and political impacts is not indissociable from the pervasive
anthropocentrism that perceives human beings as the central point of reference in world
processes; and of the dominant economic system associated with it which conceives of
non-human nature as a passive object for endless human exploitation and consumption
(Pereira and Saramago, 2020). The present context therefore calls for post-
anthropocentric proposals for the transformation of this hegemonic mode of relationship
with non-human nature, which has arisen primarily in the industrialised nations of the
Global North.
It is important to note that the transformation of this mode of relationship may inevitably
promote a gradual transformation of modern political communities or the Westphalian
system of nation-states which have, from the start, been fundamentally informed by
anthropocentric conceptions of the world and its agentic beings. In fact, the defining
norms of Westphalia e.g., sovereignty, territoriality, citizenship, nationality are all
inherently anthropocentric given that they establish the ontological, moral, legal and
political boundaries of community almost exclusively around human beings (Pereira,
2017). Calls for some form of interspecies relations (Youatt, 2014); for a new
understanding of planet politics instead of international politics (Burke et al., 2016); for
inclusive, intersectional and cosmopolitical frameworks for multispecies justice
(Celermajer et al, 2021); for new kinds of political community (e.g., zoopolis) which
embrace non-human animals as co-citizens, denizens or sovereigns (Donaldson and
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Kymlicka, 2014) among others have been appearing over the last two decades in
response to the exclusive character of world politics and IR, and their inability to
adequately respond to the climate and environmental emergencies. In fact, as Joana
Castro Pereira argues, IR should abandon the traditional grounds upon which it is based
because the current ‘internationalnotion demands not only a holistic conception but also
new ontologies, epistemologies, and methodologies” (Pereira, 2017: 5). Part of this
process would necessarily include the recognition of the world’s multiple agentic beings,
which I would add would also involve recovering and/or learning from old ontologies,
epistemologies and methodologies, such as those held and shared by Indigenous
peoples.
Another proposal with the potential to affect and perhaps reshape modern political
communities is that of the emergent Rights of Nature (RoN) movement, generally
understood to have been first advanced in the 1970s through Christopher Stone’s article,
“Should Trees Have Standing? Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects” (Stone, 1972).
Since then, and mainly during the last twenty years, the RoN movement has been
evolving within different frameworks, cultures and geographies, arguing for the
recognition of non-human nature’s inherent rights, either to nature as a whole or to
particular ecosystems and species. Although many small, localised legal and political
transformations have started being enacted under the RoN umbrella over the past few
years, some of its most paradigmatic achievements include Ecuador’s 2008 Constitution
(the first in the world to recognise RoN); the draft for a Universal Declaration of Rights
of Mother Earth written during the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the
Rights of Mother Earth in 2010 in Cochabamba, Bolivia; or Aotearoa New Zealand’s Te
Awa Tupua Act of 2017 (the first in the world to attribute legal personhood status to a
river).
Despite the fact that it most directly pertains to the universe of law, the RoN movement
holds profound and potentially radical implications for human societies on multiple levels,
including politically. As Cormac Cullinan states: “While the regulatory function of law is
easy to see, we often overlook the fact that law plays an equally important role in
constituting and forming society itself” (Cullinan, 2011: 55). Indeed, law shapes and
informs society by defining what should be the multiple relationships between individuals,
groups, and society as a whole, as well as between different societies (Cullinan, 2011).
These legally defined relationships determine, for instance, how a society is ordered and
how power is exercised within it (Cullinan, 2011). As such, “law is used by a society as a
means of creating and defining itself in accordance with its worldview” (Cullinan, 2011:
57). By advancing the idea that non-human nature has inherent rights to live and thrive,
the RoN movement rejects the foundational Eurocentric paradigm created by Cartesian
dualism: it views humanity as deeply embedded in and interdependent with the more-
than-human world; and challenges dominant conceptions of political community,
subjecthood, agency, voice, rights, participation and representation. It should also be
understood as attempting to bring together some of the tools of the contemporary
international system (e.g., modern or international law) with ecocentric or nature-
centred worldviews that are closer to Indigenous cultures and knowledge systems
(Stewart-Harawira, 2012). Indeed, it may be argued that the idea of nature’s rights is
not new at all, having been shared among native cultures for thousands of years through
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their own relationships with the land and non-human beings (Lake, 2017); which is the
reason why I argued that the evolution of IR’s understanding of the world and its agentic
beings requires both new and old ontologies, epistemologies and methodologies. To
clarify, then, when I refer to the emergent RoN movement, I refer to these new
initiatives, campaigns, and evolutions in law that seek to recognise rights and/or legal
personality status to non-human beings and ecosystems.
Critical IR Theory is useful to understand the RoN movement’s potential to gradually push
modern political communities in a post-anthropocentric direction. Therefore, in the
second section of this article, I will briefly look at Andrew Linklater’s and Robyn
Eckersley’s critiques of Westphalia and proposals for its transformation. In the third
section, I will reflect on how they might apply to two cases from the RoN movement that
were mentioned above: the Whanganui River case in Aotearoa New Zealand
(representing RoN on a local level); and Ecuador’s 2008 Constitution (representing RoN
on a national level). Through critical discourse analysis, I will look at the official
documents from each case (the Te Awa Tupua Act of 2017; and Ecuador’s Constitution)
and see how their language and narrative potential encourage an alternative reading of
concepts like community; subjecthood; agency; voice; rights; participation; and
representation. In the last section I present some concluding remarks, namely that by
significantly broadening these concepts as to include the more-than-human world the
emergent RoN movement indeed encourages different frameworks for the potential
transformation of modern political communities beyond anthropocentric Westphalia.
Beyond Westphalia
Linklater’s call for the transformation of modern political communities is associated with
his criticism of the Westphalian states-system as one premised on the inclusion of those
deemed as “insiders” or “citizens” and the exclusion of those deemed as outsiders” or
“aliens” a premise derived from the process of state-formation and that is part of the
nation-state’s “totalising project” (Linklater, 1998: 6). The success of modern states over
other forms of political organisation promoted the development of a powerful discourse
combining the concepts of sovereignty, territoriality, citizenship and nationality, based
on the belief that “ideally, all citizens should subscribe to one national identity conveyed
by a common language and culture” (Linklater, 1998: 29). From the beginning, then, the
Westphalian states-system was one which tried to erase difference within and beyond its
national boundaries; and for Linklater, the essential problem of modern political
communities is precisely their exclusion of difference and otherness both between
“citizens” and “aliens”, and between “citizens” and subaltern groups within the state
(Linklater, 1998).
Nevertheless, the Westphalian state and its totalising project do not go unchallenged.
According to Linklater, sovereign political communities are challenged on two fronts by,
on the one hand, “morally universalistic claims that call for amplifying the role of
authorities above the nation-state”; and, on the other hand, by the “politics of
recognition” of Indigenous groups and minority nations, which call for “reducing the
influence which sovereign states exert over local communities and subordinate cultures”
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(Linklater, 1998: 26-27). The tendencies of globalisation and fragmentation that have
evolved in opposition to and in response to each other in latest decades, along with the
social and economic changes they produced, have been having serious impacts on the
modern state’s capacity to perpetuate its totalising project (Linklater, 1998). Indeed, by
promoting the homogenisation of international society, globalisation actually fuels the
politics of identity and community: where there is no convergence between cultural and
political boundaries (e.g., in the case of Indigenous peoples living in colonial settler
states), there have been increasing pressures to transform “traditional conceptions of
community and citizenship which are hostile to the creation of group-specific rights”
(Kymlicka, 1989 apud Linklater, 1998: 32). Minority nations, migrant communities and
Indigenous peoples therefore promote the politics of recognition”, relying also on
“transnational political activity” that is made possible by globalisation, and thus seeking
“global support for their project of reconstructing national communities” (Linklater, 1998:
32). The growing prominence of the politics of recognition is, in Linklater’s view, a central
indicator of movement beyond the Westphalian era (Linklater, 1998).
Linklater’s proposal for overcoming the social deficits brought about by the Westphalian
nation-state’s totalising project involves the widening of the moral boundaries of political
community in order to include previously excluded “others”. This expansion of boundaries
is part of Linklater’s envisioned triple transformation of political community, one that
seeks to “secure greater respect for cultural differences, stronger commitments to the
reduction of material inequalities and significant advances in universality” (Linklater,
1998: 3). According to him, such transformation may be achieved through the
establishment of dialogic relations, or the construction of some form of universal
communication community, that engage both “citizens” (all citizens) and “aliens” in
dialogue about matters of vital interest to all. Indeed, the dialogic idealenvisages post-
nationalist communities which are sensitive to the needs of the systematically excluded
within and outside traditional borders”, making it “one of the principal ethical foundations
of the post-Westphalian era” (Linklater, 1998: 51). In Linklater’s view, making dialogue
central to social life would essentially mean being “troubled by the ways in which society
discriminates against outsiders unfairly by harming their interests while denying them
representation and voice” (Linklater, 1998: 7). In these communities, then, new social
bonds may develop which can “unite citizens around the common aim of eradicating
unjustifiable exclusion and promoting deep diversity” (Linklater, 1998: 83).
Still, as appealing as it may be for the inclusion of those subjects whose voices, needs
and concerns are traditionally excluded from political decision-making, Linklater’s
proposal seems unable to extend to non-human nature. This is partly because his
understanding of normative validity, which is inspired by Habermas’ conception of
discourse ethics, rests on the notion of communicative competence; or the fact that
norms should be considered valid insofar as all those potentially affected by them
participate in rational discourse and can (or not) give their consent to those norms
(Linklater, 1998; Eckersley, 2004). Such a provision that apparently instantly excludes
non-human beings is the result of an anthropocentric system of theory and practice that
does not even consider non-human nature as part of the picture. After all, “outsiders”,
“aliens” and subordinate/subaltern groups within the Westphalian states-system refer to
human groups such as the global poor, refugees, minority nations or Indigenous peoples
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(Linklater, 1998). Insofar as non-human nature is rendered invisible in the dominant
world-picture (Burke et al., 2016), no significant transformation of modern political
communities to embrace the more-than-human world may be achieved within
Westphalia, or as long as they adhere to its hegemonic norms and conceptions.
In such context, one might ask: what are the implications of thinking about these “aliens”
or “others” beyond the species boundary of the human? In a planet that is currently
experiencing a global climate emergency, with unprecedented levels of ecosystem
destruction, species extinction and catastrophes affecting both human and non-human
beings, are we not indeed harming everybody’s interests by denying the latter
representation and voice in the course of decision-making? What would happen if people
were troubled by the ways in which modern human societies tend to continuously dismiss
the needs and interests of non-human nature something which may be said to lie at
the centre of the climate and environmental crises? Viewing non-human nature as part
of the group of systematically excluded and devising frameworks for engaging in dialogue
with its multiple beings may be a crucial first step in order to overturn the current
situation.
Eckersley does this through her proposal for an ecological democracy, or some form of
post-Westphalian green state, which builds on Linklater’s work but goes importantly
further. Her politically challenging proposal for the transformation of modern states
establishes that: All those potentially affected by a risk should have some meaningful
opportunity to participate or otherwise be represented in the making of the policies or
decisions that generate the risk” (Eckersley, 2004: 111). This formulation is closely
aligned with Linklater’s claim that dialogue promotes moral progress, especially when
one understands it as an expansion of the circle of subjects who have rights to participate
in dialogue, and the commitment that only those norms can be regarded as universally
valid that have (or could have) the consent of all those potentially affected (Linklater,
1998). However, Eckersley’s formulation steps outside the anthropocentric cage by
suggesting that the opportunity for participation or representation should be extended to
all those potentially affected, including all of nature, non-human beings, and future
generations (Eckersley, 2004).
To engage with non-human beings in the dialogic relations that may enable the
development of more inclusive, fair, and ecological societies, Eckersley transforms
Habermas’ conception of normative validity – the one which claims that norms should be
considered valid insofar as all those potentially affected participate in rational discourse
(Eckersley, 2004). By replacing the word insofar” with “as if”, Eckersley suggests that
although many non-human beings may not be able to consent to proposed norms, acting
as if they were may help to ensure that their needs, interests and well-being are
respected, regardless of how useful they are to human beings (Eckersley, 2004). This
alternative perspective gives much more importance to the role of representation in the
democratic process. In fact, Eckersley claims that “representative claim making on behalf
of nature” is “ultimately an exercise in persuasion, concerned with exposing practices of
exclusion and defending practices of inclusion”; and it can therefore be seen “as an effort
to extend or radicalize democracy rather than curtail it” (Eckersley, 2011: 241).
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In Eckersley’s formulation of an ecological democracy, the demos is no longer fixed in
terms of people and territory”, providing “a challenge to traditional conceptions of
democracy that have presupposed some form of fixed enclosure, in terms of territory
and/or people” (Eckersley, 2004: 113). Here one can see how her proposal may directly
challenge Westphalia’s central (anthropocentric) norms of territoriality, sovereignty,
citizenship or nationality, since the “relevant moral community” that should be
considered when making risk-generating decisions is neither ontologically, geographically
nor temporally bounded (Eckersley, 2004: 113). Instead, it should be understood as that
which is tied together not by common passports, nationality, blood line, ethnicity, or
religion but by the potential to be harmed by the particular proposal” (Eckersley, 2004:
113). The boundaries of the political community would thus “rarely be determinate or
fixed but instead have more of the character of spatial-temporal zones with nebulous
and/or fading edges” (Eckersley, 2004: 113). This proposal might be better suited to
respond to planetary, borderless phenomena, such as climate change, instead of a
dominant world-picture of separate, autonomous states that can respond to the crisis
each at their own pace and will.
Of course, such a proposal carries many significant and complex challenges (in theory
and in practice). Although this is not the place to reflect on them, suffice it to note how
challenging Eckersley’s formulation is to the Westphalian states-system’s main norms
and principles, notably because it does not regard the boundaries of the nation-state as
necessarily coterminous with the community of morally considerable beings” (Eckersley,
2004: 114). Regarding the question of how to include non-human beings (and future
generations) in the dialogic processes of decision-making, Eckersley proposes the
concept of political trusteeship, whereby persons and groups are chosen to represent the
needs and interests of those who may not be able to speak for themselves. This closely
resembles Christopher Stone’s suggestion for the designation of guardians (or a system
of guardianship) who can speak on behalf of ecosystems in order to uphold their legal
rights (Stone, 1972). The representatives taking on this trusteeship role should include
those with firsthand knowledge or experience of non-human nature, including Indigenous
peoples, environmental organisations, scientific experts, etc. (Eckersley, 2004).
Naturally, cases of uncertainty, complexity or conflict may arise which can render the
decision-making process more difficult. In these cases, Eckersley claims that the green
democratic state must not be neutral. Environmental justice in an ecological democracy
necessarily requires “rights and decision rules that positively favour the disadvantaged
(…) over well-resourced and strategically oriented economic actors” (Eckersley, 2004:
135). One way to achieve this would be through the creation of green democratic
constitutions that might recognise, protect, and reward “ecologically responsible social,
economic and political interactions among individuals, firms and communities” (Eckersley
2004: 140). In effect, such democracy would encourage states to assume a form of
“ecologically responsible statehood” (Eckersley, 2004: 2). The development of a diverse
and wide-ranging green public sphere that can inspire practices of transboundary
democracy, working towards common goals of ecological, climate and social justice on a
global level, is another important aspect (Eckersley, 2004).
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Linklater’s and Eckersley’s proposals for the transformation of modern political
communities beyond their traditional modes of exclusion may therefore pave the way for
the inclusion, representation and participation of non-human nature, namely through the
development of some form of post-Westphalian green states. I will now turn to the RoN
movement and analyse how it may suggest a potential transformation of certain
communities in this direction.
The Rights of Nature movement
The RoN movement was born from a common perception that existing governance
systems are by themselves incapable of responding to the current trends of ecosystem
destruction, biodiversity loss and climate change, given competing interests from
different actors (e.g., industries; corporations; states) and the fundamental rules of the
contemporary economic and political system (Barcan, 2019). As such, “environmental
law has become a fertile site for creative experiments”, one of which includes the
recognition of non-human nature’s subjecthood, agency and voice, and fundamental
rights (Barcan, 2019: 5). As Youatt claims, the particular feature of RoN seems to be
that they name new, collective, legal and political subjects that are mostly nonhuman
(Youatt, 2017: 2). This can constitute the latest round of an outward expansion of rights
to the previously marginalized, building on the recognition of rights along the axes of
race, class, gender, and species” reminding us of Linklater’s proposal (Youatt, 2017:
2). In such scenario, through initiatives and movements like RoN, non-human nature can
increasingly acquire actorness or political subjecthood in global life.
Furthermore, the RoN movement has often (although not exclusively) been spearheaded
by Indigenous peoples and communities, which is corroborated by the fact that some of
its best-known successes (e.g., Ecuador’s 2008 Constitution; Aotearoa New Zealand’s Te
Urewera and Te Awa Tupua Acts) have been taking place in countries with Indigenous
populations and active grassroots mobilisation for the recognition of Indigenous voices,
claims, and rights. This is tied to the fact that non-Western, Indigenous modes of
relationship with non-human nature have historically been radically different from the
capitalist, anthropocentric mode of relationship prevalent in the Western world. Actually,
despite their diversity in cultures, ontologies and epistemologies, Indigenous peoples
around the world tend to share a core set of principles of relationality, interdependence,
intercommunication, respect and harmony with the Earth and all beings (e.g. Heinämäki,
2009; Stewart-Harawira, 2012; Inoue, 2018). One significant difference between
Western, hegemonic and Indigenous, counter-hegemonic understandings of nature is
that between looking at ecosystems (e.g., forests, mountains, rivers) as landscapes,
natural resources or carbon sinks or as “worlds in and of themselves” (Inoue, 2018:
28). This latter understanding underlies Indigenous ontologies that view humans as
caretakers of the Earth, explaining why in spite of comprising less than 5% of the world
human population Indigenous peoples protect and preserve around 80% of the planet’s
remaining biodiversity (IUCN, 2019). Indigenous cultures and knowledge systems have
therefore tended to reject anthropocentric notions of community, subjecthood, agency,
voice, and rights long before the modern RoN movement was born. We will now see how
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these alternative understandings of such concepts have been advanced through this
movement on two different scales.
1. The Whanganui River case
In 2017, the Te Awa Tupua Act became the world’s first piece of legislation to declare a
river to be a legal person (Collins and Esterling, 2019). It resulted from a long effort by
the Maori people, since 1873, to have their right to ownership of the Whanganui River
restored a right which was taken from the Whanganui tribes by the Treaty of Waitangi,
through which the British Crown annexed the territory of Aotearoa (New Zealand) in 1840
(Rodgers, 2017; Collins and Esterling, 2019). The attribution of legal personality to the
Whanganui represents the latest legal tool being used for the protection and management
of rivers; but it also represents a political settlement acknowledging Maori tikanga
(customary law) and viewing the river and its tributaries in a broad, holistic perspective
(O’Donnell and Macpherson, 2019).
As demonstrated in pages 14 and 15 of the Act
1
, Te Awa Tupua is defined as “an
indivisible and living whole, comprising the Whanganui River from the mountains to the
sea, incorporating all its physical and metaphysical elements” (Te Awa Tupua Act, 2017:
14). Tupua Te Kawa refers to all the intrinsic values that represent the essence of Te Awa
Tupua, including “Ko au te Awa, ko te Awa ko au: I am the River and the River is me”,
which in turn means that the Iwi and the hapü of the Whanganui River have an
inalienable connection with, and responsibility to, Te Awa Tupua and its health and well-
being” (Te Awa Tupua Act, 2017: 14-15). The Act reflects a Maori ontology by identifying
Te Awa Tupua (the whole of the river) as including both the river and the people, the
Whanganui tribes, “as a single unit, not just as a matter of recognition but also as a
matter of governance” (Youatt, 2017: 11). This conception of community consequently
views humans as inseparable from and interconnected with the more-than-human world
(the river and all other beings inhabiting it). It also represents an attempt to dismantle
systems of governance built by Western colonial powers that use language, discourse
and law to govern human and non-human nature according to their objectives and
worldviews (Youatt, 2017).
This Indigenous view of the Whanganui River as a broad community is in line with
Eckersley’s proposal for an ecological democracy in which the boundaries of the demos
are redrawn to include a larger moral constituency; one that challenges the Westphalian
nation-state’s traditional norm of territorial sovereignty as a fundamentally nationalist
and anthropocentric one (Eckersley, 2004). In this case, the Whanganui River although
being geographically located within the borders of the state of Aotearoa New Zealand
belongs not to the state but to itself, which includes the Maori tribes and the non-human
beings living in interdependence with the river. Ownership would in this case be better
understood as guardianship. As noted by Rodgers, “traditional Maori concepts of
stewardship reflect a different relationship (…) to that in most Western legal systems”
(Rodgers, 2017: 270). The difference lies in the Maori concept of kaitiakitanga, whose
1
The Te Awa Tupua (Whanganui River Claims Settlement) Act 2017 can be consulted here:
https://www.legislation.govt.nz/act/public/2017/0007/latest/whole.html
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main premise is “the understanding that people live in a symbiotic relationship with the
earth and all living organisms and have a responsibility to enhance and protect its
ecosystems” (Rodgers, 2017: 270). An example of this is clearly illustrated by the phrase
“I am the River and the River is me” (Te Awa Tupua Act, 2017: 15).
The next pages of the Act show what it establishes in terms of the recognition of legal
personality to Te Awa Tupua and the defined system of guardianship. The Whanganui
River is thereby declared to be a “legal person and has all the rights, powers, duties, and
liabilities of a legal person” (Te Awa Tupua Act, 2017: 15). Te Pou Tupua are its appointed
guardians, in accordance with Eckersley’s concept of trusteeship, to ensure that the
interests and needs of non-human nature are represented and upheld. The appointed
guardians are to be the “human face of Te Awa Tupua and act in the name of Te Awa
Tupua” (Te Awa Tupua Act, 2017: 17). This system of guardianship consists of naming
one member of the Whanganui tribes and one member of the Crown to act as trustees
or spokespersons, and to uphold the intrinsic values (Tupua te Kawa) that represent the
essence of the whole of the river. By electing both one Indigenous and one non-
Indigenous New Zealander as representatives, the Act may be understood to try to
promote a convergence of cultural and political boundaries, thereby encouraging what
Linklater advocates as a transformation of political community that seeks to secure
greater respect for cultural differences and a greater universality (Linklater, 1998).
It also effectively broadens the scope of representation in the political community that is
the state of Aotearoa New Zealand, regarding this local ecosystem, by including both: 1)
traditionally marginalised human communities (the Maori); and 2) non-human nature
(Te Awa Tupua). Ultimately, the conception of humanity’s relationship with non-human
nature that underlies this Act is radically different from the one that permeates dominant
narratives in the modern states-system. It: a) recognises legal and political subjecthood
to a river; b) claims that the physical and spiritual community formed by Te Awa Tupua
is made of both human and non-human beings, thereby crossing the territorial and
ontological boundaries of the river; c) establishes that Te Awa Tupua is its own sovereign;
d) and attempts to ensure that the river’s voice is heard, even if through its appointed
human guardians. Hence, regardless of potential challenges to its practical
implementation (which are likely to exist, since it marks such new ground in Western law
and politics), it clearly promotes counter-hegemonic conceptions of community,
subjecthood, agency, voice, rights, participation and representation that are non-
anthropocentric and better suited to respond to the current context of environmental
destruction exacerbating the climate crisis. The transformative potential of the Act is also
that, even if on a local level, the inscription of this piece of legislation into the institutions
of the state indeed creates a precedent for a new system of governance and pushes it
toward a form of ecologically responsible statehood (Eckersley, 2004).
2. Ecuador’s 2008 Constitution
We now turn to that which is perhaps the world’s most famous example of the RoN
movement on a national level. In 2008, Ecuador became the first country in the world to
officially enshrine RoN into its Constitution, recognising nature in its whole as a rights-