Accessing nature: The battle of the Hurunui River
People understand their relationship, and that of broader society, with nature in a diverse range of ways. Yet the expression of such diversity is often constrained in decision making processes, and in western contexts, neoliberalised understandings of nature are often privileged. Feminist political ecology provides a nuanced approach to exploring how meanings of nature are made and remade, and how some meanings come to be dominant. An emergent body of political ecology has begun to draw on radical democratic theory to shed light on how this privilege is created and perpetuated in political processes in ways that channel certain outcomes. In extending this engagement between theories, this research explores how different understandings of nature compete in formal and informal political spaces through the case study of a new water management regime. For more than a decade, debate has raged about whether or not to dam the Hurunui River for irrigation. Such debate about the future of freshwater bodies has characterised politics in the Canterbury region through which the Hurunui flows. Canterbury has seen rapid agricultural intensification that has been enabled by the enclosure of freshwater. However, enclosure has been contested, and this contestation came to a head when, in early 2010, the national government intervened and dramatically reregulated freshwater in the region; elections for the regional council were suspended, access to judicial reconsideration of decisions about the environment were severely narrowed, and processes underway to protect freshwater bodies were interrupted. Promising better environmental democracy, central government, and the appointed officials replacing the elected councillors, endorsed a new freshwater management initiative based on devolved collaboration and consensus building. In response to conflict over the Hurunui River, the catchment was the first area in which this initiative was tested, a process that became the case study for this project. Through a feminist poststructural approach, I conducted and analysed 42 semi-structured interviews with those involved with Hurunui politics, and was a participant observer at 12 meetings of the new collaborative committee for the catchment. I argue that there were multiple processes that worked to channel particular understandings of nature, and facilitate the enclosure of freshwater for economic advantage. This channelling occurred in three key ways. Firstly, reregulation in Canterbury removed many democratic rights, limiting opportunities for participation in water politics. Secondly, the devolved collaborative and consensus based water committee was constrained by targets and discourses that determined that more water needed to be enclosed to serve a neoliberal growth agenda. Thirdly, community was privileged as a scale of democracy. As a result, narrow constructions of community belonging and performance remained unexplored, and these constructions inhibited public debate and limited possibilities to articulate and explore difference. I argue that such everyday experiences of power and constrained agency constitute an important dynamic of nature politics. There were, however, hopeful aspects of the new regime. An emphasis on dialogue led to transformative social learning, particularly about Ngāi Tahu, the Māori iwi (tribe) with traditional authority over the region, and the ways the iwi negotiated and enacted a relational ethics with the river. This study argues that considerations of power must be at the forefront of democratic design and uneven power relations need to be engaged with in such a way that multiple understandings of nature and society can be articulated and seen to be legitimate. Such an approach provides possibilities for political space in which to reimagine environmental futures and contest the dominance of neoliberal natures.