Water and elephants: Two new books you should read

Two important new books by anthropologists working in Aotearoa/New Zealand have been published this month.

Tupuna Awa: People and Politics of the Waikato River, by Marama Muru-Lanning, examines how changing discourse around the Waikato River affects the relationships between the Crown, commercial operators like Mighty River Power, and the people of the region for whom it is a ‘Tupuna Awa’, a river ancestor.

‘We have always owned the water . . . we have never ceded our mana over the river to anyone’, King Tuheitia asserted in 2012. Prime Minister John Key disagreed: ‘King Tuheitia’s claim that Māori have always owned New Zealand’s water is just plain wrong’. So who does own the water in New Zealand – if anyone – and why does it matter?
Offering some human context around that fraught question, Tupuna Awa looks at the people and politics of the Waikato River. Marama Muru-Lanning introduces us to the way Māori of the region, the Crown and Mighty River Power have talked about water, ownership, stakeholders, guardianship and the river. Those conversations culminated in 2009 with a Deed of Settlement signed by Waikato-Tainui and the Crown that established a new co-governance structure for the Waikato River. By examining debates over water, Muru-Lanning provides a powerful lens into modern iwi politics and contests for power between Māori and the State.

Tupuna Awa is published by Auckland University Press.

Conflict, Negotiation, and Coexistence: Rethinking Human-Elephant Relations in South Asia is a collection edited by Piers Locke and Jane Buckingham. Arising from an international symposium Piers Locke convened in 2013, this book brings anthropologists, biologists, ecologists, geographers, historians, political scientists, and Sanskrit literature specialists into conversation with each other to explore humans, elephants, and environments in South Asia from the multispecies, interdisciplinary perspective of ethnoelephantology.

Numerous and often contrasting are the ways in which elephants have been regarded by humans across millennia. Today, with reduced forest cover, human population expansion, and increasing industrialization, interaction between the two species is unavoidable and conflict is not mere happenstance. What, then, is the future of this relationship?

In South Asia, human-elephant relationships resonate with cultural significance. From the importance of elephants in ancient texts to the role of mahouts over centuries, from discussions on de-extinction to accounts of intimate companionship, the essays in this book reveal the various dynamics of the relationship between two intelligent social mammals. Eschewing such binaries as human and animal or nature and culture, the essays present elephants as subjective agents who think, feel, and emote.

Conflict, Negotiation, and Coexistence underscores the fact that we cannot understand elephant habitat and behaviour in isolation from the humans that help configure it. Significantly, nor can we understand human political, economic, and social life without the elephants that shape and share the world with them.

Conflict, Negotiation, and Coexistence is published by Oxford University Press and you can read a short article about the book by the editors on the OUP blog.