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Drala of the Landscape: Rights of the River

This essay also appears in the special issue “Dharma, De-Growth, and Climate Change.” Click here to download and read the entire issue.


In March of 2017, the Maori people of New Zealand finally won a 140-year long battle to have the Whanganui River legally enshrined as their ancestor. This recognition bestowed rights upon the river as a living being, with its own identity, rights, and duties. This means that New Zealand law now acknowledges its third largest river as a “living whole,” protected by two human guardians and accompanied by an initial $110 million in government funding to address past maltreatment and ensure continuous protection for the river.1

“We have fought to find an approximation in law so that all others can understand that from our perspective treating the river as a living entity is the correct way to approach it, as an indivisible whole, instead of the traditional model for the last 100 years of treating it from a perspective of ownership and management,” stated Gerrard Albert, who was the Whanganui iwi tribe’s head negotiator in the case.2 For the Whanganui iwi, one of the groups of Maori whose name reflects the river to whom they are tied, the decision was not just a legal matter but a profoundly spiritual one. “It’s not that we’ve changed our worldview, but people are catching up to seeing things the way that we see them,” Labour Member of Parliament Adrian Rurawhe said.3

Several days later, the Uttarakhand High Court in India took similar steps, giving the Ganges and Yamuna Rivers status as legal persons. A significant element of the ruling articulated the sacredness of the rivers to the country’s 966 million Hindus, who comprise nearly 80% of the population.4 One basis for this ruling appears to be the ways in which temple deities are sometimes treated as legal persons in court cases, highlighting the religious basis of who or what, might qualify for such standing. The ruling also acknowledged that the rivers sustain the livelihoods of millions of people, and in so doing noted the degraded state in which the waters currently flow. While religious ceremonies are often blamed, the main sources of pollution remain sewage and chemical runoff from the cities and settlements along the rivers’ banks.5

Although the Indian Supreme Court later overturned the ruling6 on the basis of the impracticality of enforcement,7 the example remains a powerful one. It provides a possible precedent for similar steps in other cultural and legal contexts such as the US.8 One wonders, for example, how the protests at Standing Rock last year might have been empowered had the Sioux had clearer legal standing as the acknowledged guardians of the water supply threatened by the pipeline.

Seeing rivers as persons offers a provocative basis for a radical reexamination of how legal systems assess the “value” of the natural world. Especially in the West, natural resources have historically been viewed through anthropocentric lenses and thus allocated value that reflects the ways in which they are important or useful to humans. But the possibility of rivers-as-persons is a reminder that other views accord nature intrinsic value not dependent on its offerings to human beings.  In economic terms, for example, the shift towards calculating ecosystem services has been presented as a way to make the hidden riches of nature visible at the bottom line. By adding up, say, the real cost of how much oxygen a tree provides, those costs could potentially be pushed into the system and “paid” by those who consume them. This kind of valuation aims to show that the flood prevention capacity provided by coastal wetlands ecosystems, for example, does in fact have a price tag, even if the ways in which it is often paid are deeply problematic.

While making the invisible visible through ecosystem services can create significant opportunities to rethink behavior, it remains underpinned by the same economic logic that got us into the current environmental mess in the first place. When we try to consider the import of the more-than-human commons that Walsh discusses in this special issue, value for the “things” that populate the landscape is difficult to elucidate in shared language. The dualism of the commons and the people who populate it is inherent in most notions of the human-environment relationship. It is also deeply rooted in many Western conceptions of nature, from Christianity’s resurgent assertion that natural resources are given to humans by God for their own use, to manifest destiny’s determined transformation of the American landscape, to consumption patterns that value growth above all else. The legacies of privileging humans over nature articulate themselves in the current moment through our disconnection from each other and this place in which we live. Seeing natural resources as just another cost to pay, for example, does not challenge the underlying logic that they are there for the taking, but rather focuses on getting the price right. A more fundamental shift might recognize that humans live in landscapes of finite value and closed loops, in which our behavior continues to impact the environment even if we calculate the associated costs. As many environmentalists have argued and I remind my environmental studies students, there really is no away to throw things to when we struggle to understand the short-sighted manner in which “value” is calculated at the present moment.

If, as Walsh posits, a better alternative is to understand the commons as reflective of a responsibility to sustain it (and therefore, our human selves in relationship to it), it rapidly becomes clear that we are not doing an especially good job. In a recent talk in Denver, Colorado, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche described his understanding of global society as, in essence, a single large person of which we are all a part. This clearly reflects long standing notions of the earth itself as a living organism consisting of intertwined and largely indivisible parts, illuminating some of the possibilities in looking beyond economic value to other traditions’ understandings of how humans might live in and with nature. The Maori belief in the river as an ancestor, for example, emanates from convictions about deep interconnection.9 This is not entirely dissimilar to more recent notions of deep ecology, such as Arne Naess’ seminal arguments that the rich diversity of the natural world was valuable just because it existed, as reflected in the grassroots environmental movements of the 1960s and 70s. But bringing a Buddhist lens to this conversation, as this special issue seeks to do, raises the puzzle of how to argue for the right of the landscape to exist in the frame of a tradition that argues that none of us, in the broader sense, actually do.

Many argue that there are natural affinities between Buddhist views and caring for the natural environment, especially in the wish to protect all living things, or at least not to harm them. The Dalai Lama, for example, has consistently argued that human beings have a responsibility to act to protect the environment from climate change, with particular concern for the glaciers of the Himalayas near his homeland. But what would it change if we understood those glaciers as having their own life, their own energy, their own purpose?

The Tibetan notion of drala is instructive here. The word drala translates to “above the enemy,” to arriving at a place where aggression has been subdued. Drala signals our connection to the vast and powerful world around us.10 It describes the life energy of the world, which we perceive through our senses because we are inherently and deeply connected to it. Features of the landscape sometimes seem to reach out to us, to speak; a particular flower may radiate or the wind through the trees may strike a unique tone, quieting our own inner dialogue and reminding us to notice the space we are in. In this way, drala can be both a present and powerful sense of being in nature in the moment, but can also express itself more specifically as a feeling of connecting to the spirit of a particular living thing. In both cases, we momentarily transcend the enemy of the dualism that blocks our view of where we are in the present moment.

As Russell Rodgers describes, “Practitioners who are familiar with the term drala often associate it with places that have power for us: they provoke a sense of primal vastness and spaciousness. Perhaps they provoke awe, or a sense of beauty. Size is not the issue here—it could be a mountain top, a mossy forest, or a drop of dew.”11 The sense of place that is evoked creates connection by reminding us that we are not, at any essential level, separate from that feeling of power, from the energy of the places in which we reside. This expansive inclusiveness shifts entirely our presumption that the world is made up of things that we can collect and experience. It also reminds us that our own well-being depends consistently on that of others, and not just of other humans but of water, of air, of plants. In this way, the dralas reflect the understanding of the Maori, in that they are both our ancestors and our present companions along the path of being human. We have simply forgotten how to see them.

“Luxury is experiencing reality,” according to Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who taught extensively on the presence of drala in an effort to help his Western students recover their sense of place in the world. Trungpa observed that the creation of an enlightened society depended in no small part upon our human ability to recognize ourselves as entirely dependent on each other and the world around us. But to do this, we have to be still enough to allow ourselves to see and feel:

“It sounds very simplistic, but it has a lot of magic. You begin to pick up on clouds, sunshine and weather, the mountains, your past, your chatter with your grandmother and your grandfather, your own mother, your own father. You begin to pick up on a lot of things. Just let them pass like the chatter of a brook as it hits the rocks.”12

This process of “picking up on” reorients our understanding and elucidates the fluidity of our being with all of the many beings around us. Trungpa felt that this kind of understanding was what would bring an end to the aggression he saw pervading Western society—against ourselves, other people, and the planet upon which we live. The notion of drala, by encouraging both a reconnection to a sense of place and a recognition of nature’s energetic agency, is very much in harmony with the idea that landscapes, too, have their own ways of being, and that these ways of being deserve protection.  This fundamental shift in view relies on an entirely different conception of value that is unlikely to be captured by creative economic measures.

The pursuit of legal status for the landscape has significant potential to extend notions of what can be protected, and by whom. If the Maori are right and “I am the river, the river is me,” then we might better understand what matters by further blurring the boundaries between people and planet. Making the rights of the river explicit and entrusting them to human guardians, for example, acknowledges the deeply connected relationship that the Maori believe already exists. Giving these relationships legal standing also empowers people to act as protectors. The Maori’s prolonged battle for legal recognition of their relationship with the river in particular shows one powerful way forward in shifting not just our views of human impacts on the environment, but a concrete step that could be taken to promote a less anthropocentric, and more inclusive, understanding of life. In the case of the Ganges and Yamuna, the effort to enshrine their sacredness in legal terms offers another avenue for reconsidering human responsibility to the places in which we live. If we consider that the personhood designation was overturned based on concerns for implementation rather than a substantive criticism of the nature of the ruling itself, there may be an opening that subsequent cases could expand.

In some respects, both the Indian and New Zealand cases are threads in an emerging tapestry of ways in which to help create new mechanisms for environmental stewardship. They complement growing efforts in the West to recognize animal rights. One such achievement was France’s 2015 recognition that some animals have sentience, which became grounds for improving welfare standards. Even in the US, advocates for animal rights continue to press the legal system to enforce higher standards of humane treatment, pushing for increased corporate transparency when systemic abuses are uncovered. And recurrent legal efforts by the Puyallup Tribe in Washington State to return Mount Rainier to its traditional name13 also reflect a desire to make hidden understandings of the peaks visible; long-told stories about the mountain describe her as a mother with a wealth of offerings to those (of many species) in her care. Taken together, these and other examples of the expansion of legal boundaries of who, and what, has rights, are a potentially valuable way to care for the planet in a more inclusive way.

Creating legal grounds for protecting animals, and rivers, and perhaps mountains as well, offers both a practical way to protect them and a reminder of our human relationship with them. It is hardly new to assert that people exist not apart from, but wholly within, nature; and yet this is something we humans seem to need to be reminded of constantly. To play with Joko Beck’s plea for loosening our tendency to privilege one thing over another, if nothing on the earth is “special” then everything can be. In this gentle light even the pieces are, at some level, also the whole: “Though for short periods it seems to be distinguishable as a separate event, the water in the whirlpools is just the river itself.”14


Rachel DeMotts is an associate professor in the University of Puget Sound’s Environmental Policy and Decision-Making program. Her research interests lie in southern Africa, especially the intersections of transboundary conservation, gender and natural resource use, and human-elephant conflict. A student of Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, she also teaches courses in Sacred Ecology and offers meditation instruction as part of a budding Tacoma Shambhala Meditation Group.


Illustration by Alicia Brown

To cite this essay: Rachel DeMotts, “Drala of the Landscape: Rights of the River,” The Arrow: A Journal of Wakeful Society, Culture & Politics 5, no. 1 (2018): 21-28.


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Notes

  1. “Try me a River: New Zealand declares a river a person,” The Economist, March 25, 2017, https://www.economist.com/news/asia/21719409-odd-legal-status-intended-help-prevent-pollution-and-other-abuses-new-zealand-declares.
  2. Eleanor Ainge Roy, “New Zealand river granted same legal rights as human being,” The Guardian, March 16, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/mar/16/new-zealand-river-granted-same-legal-rights-as-human-being.
  3. Isaac Davidson, “Whanganui River given legal status of a person under unique Treaty of Waitangi settlement,” NZ Herald, March 15, 2017, http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=11818858.
  4. Kavita Upadhyay, “Ganga, Yamuna termed ‘living persons,’” The Hindu, March 21, 2017, http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/ganga-yamuna-termed-living-persons/article17547682.ece.
  5. Pia Peterson and Thea Piltzecker, “India’s Yamuna River Now Enjoys Legal Personhood. Will That Be Enough to Clean It Up?” Sierra, September 14, 2017, http://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/india-s-yamuna-river-now-enjoys-legal-personhood-will-be-enough-clean-it.
  6. “India’s Ganges and Yamuna rivers are ‘not living entities,’” BBC News, July 7, 2017, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-40537701.
  7. The Court specifically cited the rivers’ course through many regions, creating a myriad of legal and administrative structures that would have to be navigated in order to harmonize what legal personhood would mean in different regulatory contexts.
  8. Michael Larrick, “Sacred standing: Giving water rights,” University of Denver Water Law Review, September 2017, http://duwaterlawreview.com/sacred-standing-giving-water-rights/.
  9. The Record of Understanding giving the river legal status, for example, acknowledges the Maori conviction that tributaries come together to form rivers in the same way that groups of people have shared ancestors. See full text of the Record of Understanding, which predates the official court decision, here: http://www.wrmtb.co.nz/new_updates/Record%20of%20Understanding%202012.pdf. The Record includes the assertion that the health of the people and of the rive rare inextricably entwined.
  10. Chögyam Trungpa, Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1984), 103-105.
  11. Russell Rodgers “Human Drala” Shambhala Times, June 28, 2013, https://shambhalatimes.org/2013/06/28/human-drala/.
  12. Chögyam Trungpa, Great Eastern Sun: The Wisdom Of Shambhala (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2001), 123.
  13. The renaming of Mount McKinley to Denali by President Obama in 2015 spurred discussion of other similarly named mountains, even as many of those discussions predated this step. Given that tribes in Washington have many names for Mount Rainier, which one to return to is also a source of much discussion. See Daniel Person “One Challenge to Renaming Rainier: Getting the New Name Right” Seattle Weekly News, September 1, 2015, http://archive.seattleweekly.com/home/960474-129/one-challenge-to-renaming-rainier-getting; for broader context of this discussion relative to other peaks, see https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2015/09/150901-renaming-mountains-denali-rainier-helens-harney-devils-tower/.
  14. Charlotte Joko Beck with Steve Smith, Nothing Special: Living Zen (HarperOne 1994).