“From Whale Rider to The Shape of Water: The Role of Blockbuster Film in Widening Public Understanding of the Rights to Nature Movement”
Joni Adamson, Arizona State University

Around the world, blockbuster films are being marshaled into autoethnographic events staged by indigenous, ethnic minority, and civil society groups to advocate for the rights of nature. For example, in New Zealand, the collaborative construction by Maori wood carvers and a Hollywood production crew of a canoe, or waka, for Whale Rider (2003) helped to illustrate how the Maori are revisioning their relationship to the whale. At the end of the film, paddlers launch a waka carved with the story of Maori relationship to whales. This event represents, fictionally, how actual indigenous groups are “writing” their own ethnographies of multispecies relationship. After the 2009 debut of Avatar, at an Ecuadoran fundraising event, Achuar, Shuar, and Waorani tribal members arrived at a screening of the film kitted out in plumes, feathered crowns, jewelry, and 3-D glasses. According to Achuar leader Luis Vargas, they were not so much interested in the story of a “white guy [who] sweeps in to the rescue” but in the power of a staged media event that would allow them to tell their own story about the disastrous impacts of multinational oil drilling in Yasuni National Park (Spitzer). And in 2017, Guillermo Del Toro’s Oscar winning The Shape of Water made a mysterious amphibian humanoid captured in the Amazon basin central to the plot. This character brings new attention to “Yakaruna” stories which tell of dolphins or manatees who love humans so much they transform themselves into humans in order to live among them or lure them back to their own luxurious underwater cities (Galeano 2009, 26). This genre of acquatic seducer story, so well-known in Amazonia, has been crucial to winning legal protections for endangered pink dolphins in Boliva. In this talk, then, I’ll explore the potential of blockbuster film, and traditional anthropomorphic tales which convey complex philosophies and allegories, to spark wider conversations about the cultures, contexts, environmentalisms, legal instruments, documents and autoethnographic events undergirding the rights to nature movement. 

“Can Tigers be our Brothers?: Changing Human-Animal Relations in the Mishmi Hills, Northeast India
Ambika Aiyadurai, IIT Gandhinagar, India

Human-nature relations are diverse, multifaceted and often contradictory, especially the relationships with animals. Mishmi people living on the Sino-India border claim tigers to be their brothers and take credit for tiger protection as they observe taboos against hunting tigers. Drawing on this notion of relatedness and kinship with tigers, local residents of the Dibang Valley question the governments’ recent plans to declare the Dibang Wildlife Sanctuary into Dibang Tiger Reserve and its scientific surveys of tigers and habitat mapping. This paper highlights how Mishmi people relate to tigers and how their understanding of tigers is in contest with versions of state and science, as national property or endangered species. Using in-depth interviews and participant observations in the Dibang Valley, I provide an ethnographic analysis of how different ideas of nature are played out by different actors in Arunachal Pradesh, Northeast India. Tiger conservation projects bring these conflicting versions of nature together, creating unexpected encounters between Mishmi, state and scientists. This paper aims to contribute to the understanding of changing notions of nature in the age of globalization and an increasingly interconnected world.

“The Rights of Nature: A Global Movement”
Hal Crimmel, Weber State University

Western views and the legal system tend to view nature as property, and as a resource from which wealth is extracted, a commodity whose only value is to provide for human needs. But for millennia indigenous communities have viewed themselves as part of nature. As pressures on ecosystems mount and as conventional laws seem increasingly inadequate to address environmental degradation, communities, cities, regions and countries around the world are turning to a new legal strategy known as The Rights of Nature. This film takes viewers on a journey that explores the more recent origins of this legal concept, and its application and implementation in Ecuador, New Zealand, and the United States. Learn how constitutional reforms adopted in Ecuador have helped recognize nature as a legal entity, and how partnerships between the Māori and the government of New Zealand have led to personhood status for rivers, lakes and forests, and a renewed sense of balance between people and nature. See how the Rights of Nature function in the urban setting of Santa Monica, California. The film explores the successes and challenges inherent in creating new legal structures that have the potential to maintain and restore ecosystems while achieving a balance between humans and nature.

Craig Kauffman, University of Oregon
“When Rivers Have Rights: Competing Models for Recognizing and Protecting Rights of Nature”

Since 2006, governments around the world have adopted legal provisions (laws and court rulings) recognizing nature as a subject with rights. Despite expressing common rights of nature meta-norms transmitted through transnational networks, rights of nature legal provisions differ in how they answer key normative questions, including how to define rights-bearing nature, what rights to recognize, who has the right to speak for nature, and who, if anyone, should be responsible for protecting nature’s rights. Kauffman will present a framework for analyzing rights of nature legal provisions along two conceptual axes (scope and strength), highlighting how existing laws answer normative questions differently. Using the framework, Kauffman will describe and compare two distinct models for institutionalizing rights of nature that have emerged and diffused internationally. To do so, Kauffman compares rights of nature legal provisions in Ecuador, Bolivia and the US (illustrating Model 1) with those in New Zealand, Colombia, and India (illustrating Model 2). In particular, Kauffman will compare the guardianship arrangements and new governance structures established to protect nature’s rights and will discuss their implications for implementing new, more eco-centric approaches to sustainable development.

Jeff Nicolaisen, Duke University
“Equality of Life in Taiwan: An Ontology for Rights Beyond the Human”

The modern regime of human rights and equality owes itself to John Locke, more than any other philosopher. For Locke, the equality of humans was based on their God-given capacity to reason that God exists and created the universe. Even if human equality has been so culturally ingrained that secular human rights advocates seldom ask on what basis humans are equal, the logic of inalienable rights and human equality fails when separated from the Christian ontological basis of this equality (Waldron, 2002). This spark of the divine exclusive to humans sets humans apart from “nature.” In Taiwan, however, the concept of the “equality of life” is rooted in a Chinese Buddhist ontology. Perhaps the most well-known advocate for the “equality of life” is the philosopher-nun Shi Chao-hwei. For Chao-hwei, equality derives not from rationality or a divine spark, but from dependent-arising—the fact that all life arises from causes and conditions. For her, suffering, not the capacity to reason, is the standard for moral judgment. The subjects of moral concern, which she calls “life,” includes all sentient beings, both human and non-human animals, but “equality of life” also extends beyond individuals as dependent arising is based on dependence rather than independence. In this interdependence, there is no room for a concept of a “nature” distinct from human life. Based on this ontological basis of equality, she and her students started the animal protection movement in Taiwan. In this paper, I consider how Chao-hwei’s Buddhist ontology produces a different regime of rights which extend beyond the human.