The power of water

Who owns the water?

Dr Marama Muru Lanning (BA 2000, MA 2002, PhD 2010) from the University’s Department of Anthropology speaks with Judy Wilford about rights and interests in the Waikato River and their relevance to current issues of crucial national significance.

“I grew up at Türangawaewae Marae on the banks of the Waikato River,” says Dr Marama Muru-Lanning.
“I know about its flooding and currents, its high and low water lines. I know about the safe places for swimming, and the least dangerous places to jump into it from the bridges. I remember the mists and living in fog, days of being cold to the bone. I know the smell of the river. I crossed it every day to get to school.
“The river is my ancestor, my Tupuna Awa.”

The Waikato River has also been in recent months at the centre of a legal controversy which has struck to the heart of our national psyche. The legal – and moral – arguments concern the rights of ownership, access and guardianship of the water of this river, and, by extension, of our other New Zealand waterways. It is an issue which has come to the fore through the decision of the present Government to embark upon the partial sales (49 percent) of our state-owned power companies, including Mighty River Power, which generates its electricity from dams on the Waikato River that have until this time been fully state-owned.

It is also an issue that Marama has studied deeply for her PhD and for a book (working title: Tupuna Awa, River Ancestor: The People of the Waikato River) to be published next year by Auckland University Press. When she began her research in 2003 – even when she finished her PhD in 2010 – she had no idea that her scholarly endeavours would have such immediate political relevance. Her thesis has now become a resource of knowledge for those who need – or wish for – a deeper understanding of the significance of the Waikato River in restoring Waikato Māori status and mana, and of the complexities involved in decision-making around the rights to water. It has shown that the Waikato River lies at the heart of Māori tribal identity and chiefly power and is therefore a key focus of on-going local struggles for prestige and mana.

The focus of Marama’s thesis was on the three major groups with an interest in and an influence on issues of ownership of the Waikato River: Māori iwi and hapu whose ancestral lands border the river; Mighty River Power; and the Crown. Her study examined the complexity of perspectives within and between those three groups in relation to rights, responsibilities, and “ownership”. She also looked closely at how those perspectives change – and how those changes are reflected in, and very often influenced by, the language used to describe them.

“New terminology was introduced by the new power-brokers of the river,” says Marama. “When you want to change a relationship you create a new term or alter the meaning of an existing term.” A potent example, she says, is “Tupuna Awa”, River Ancestor, a term she grew up with as an essential part of her identity and that of others who belonged to her marae. A newer term that has replaced it in some contexts – notably in discussions leading up to a Deed of Settlement made in 2009 between the Waikato-Tainui iwi and the Crown – is “Te Awa Tupuna”, Ancestral River, which “expresses a different relationship”.

The strength of her study, Marama believes, is that it has clarified some of the ways in which the key stakeholders are defining the river, and has shown that not all Māori along the river have been thinking in the same way. “The Māori groups at each location along the river have their own stories, their own mana; there are differences in what they want and the way they, as kaitiaki and as owners, approached “the Crown”. The term kaitiaki is not defined in the Western way but carries a number of meanings relating to shared ownership, harvesting rights, and rights to use the river for defined purposes at particular times.

Marama’s iwi affiliations are Waikato, Ngäti Maniapoto and Ngäti Whātua. Her local marae, Tärangawaewae in Ngäruawähia, stands at the centre of the Kingitanga (Māori King Movement), which was established in the 1850s to resist the confiscation of land. Marama’s grandparents accompanied Kingitanga leader Princess Te Puea Herangi on her journey up the Waikato River in the 1920s to found the marae. Tūrangawaewae, which has always been a centre for peaceful protest has in recent years become the principal site in which Māori leaders from all over New Zealand gather to discuss vital issues around property rights in water. It has also become a centre of resistance against the sale of state-owned assets.

A further – and slightly ironical – link with a different stakeholder was the two years Marama spent, before commencing her higher education, in an administration position with the entity ECNZ, which later became Mighty River Power.

All these connections offer huge benefits of insight in a study of this kind, but also throw up challenges.
First, as a Māori, embedded in her community, with strong loyalties and a deep knowledge and respect for the values of her participants, Marama was aware of the need to build relationships of trust, and to conform not only with the University’s ethical requirements but also to conduct her research in accordance with the strict ethical protocols of the different Mäori groups. “Before commencing my PhD study I went on a hikoi along the length of the river with a number of Māori elders who introduced me to the sacred sites and asked permission of the local people for me to do the research… I had to show a lot of integrity, honesty and humility because of the importance of the research, and the fact that if it were poorly done that would reflect back on my whänau.”

Second, as the first Māori member of staff in social anthropology since the department separated from Mäori studies in the 1990s as well as the only social anthropologist to be engaged in Māori research, she was breaking new ground and needed to prove herself. “I needed to convince my supervisors”, she says, “both of whom were from overseas, that as a social anthropologist coming from the ‘inside’ rather than the ‘outside’ of the group I was studying, I would not be sacrificing academic rigour. I also needed to prove that, as a graduate student of the department, I could also be an effective member of staff.”

In fact, in the end, said Marama, this need to prove herself motivated her to work harder, to be absolutely meticulous in clarifying her thoughts, and to strive to produce high-quality journal articles. She has great respect for the strength of scholarship of her supervisors, Professor Cris Shore and Professor Veronica Strang, and is grateful for the continuing staunch support of prominent social anthropologists, Dame Joan Metge and Associate Professor Judith Huntsman, as well as the Head of the Department of Anthropology, Professor Simon Holdaway.
I asked Marama if she has formed an opinion – through her background or her research – on the prospective partial sale of Mighty River Power.

“I am very much against the sale,” she says. “When the power stations use water, what is flowing through those turbines is our Tupuna Awa. The water as it flows is captured in man-made lakes and stored until it is needed. Control over the flow means control over the ecosystems. The resulting changes in depth and temperature affect the life in the river, and the activities on the river. If you sell those dams you are in effect selling ‘rights’ to control and use the water, and to affect its properties in many ways.”

When the use of the water was for the benefit of all New Zealanders, Marama was able to accept its use by the power company. But with the sale of assets, she says, that makes it quite different.

“When you sell off assets you dispossess a lot of New Zealanders. Suddenly the people who can afford shares are the new owners of those rights. And those who buy the shares can on-sell the rights. “I do not believe it is fair or reasonable.”

 

This article was originally published in Ingenio (Autumn 2013)