The appropriation of coastal spaces
Location G
Date and Time 10th December, 2008 at 08:30


David Anderson (University of Aberdeen)
Gro Ween (University of Oslo)
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Short Abstract

This panel presents comparative analysis of how settler states and local communities negotiate access to coastal spaces. Here anthropologists conducting fieldwork in coastal areas explore paradoxes arising when land rights interact with local communities where people do not see the sea as a barrier.

Long Abstract

This panel presents a comparative analysis of how settler states and local communities negotiate access to coastal spaces. It has been generally acknowledged that international statutes on indigenous tenure are better at describing rights to firm land than to the shifting boundaries between land and sea or along the waters itself.

Here a number of anthropologists conducting fieldwork in coastal areas explore the paradoxes that arise when statues on 'land rights' must interact with local communities where people do not see the sea as a barrier. Instead, they might view the sea as a source of food, a place where people manage complex relationships with animals who use both terrestrial and marine environments. In some regions water is an element that regularly transforms. The sea can facilitate movement in calm weather or become like land when it freezes. In many parts of the world the foreshore - by definition both sea and land - is the focus of economic engagement. In some contexts, firm land might harbour submerged creatures as with aquatic environments. The introduction of new technologies may change perceptions of natural boundaries as new transgressions are permitted. In these cases, new categories can be constituted, and legal and moral categories may be further challenged. Elements of movement, technology and identities are merged as people state their relationship to coastal spaces.

The presenters suggest ways of conceptualising relationships to coastal spaces that co-exist with rights discourses and which extend anthropological analysis.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Saltwater, Fresh Water and the Birth of a Nation

Author: Patrick Sullivan (Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies)

Short Abstract

Claiming native title in Australia is a legal process and so inevitably entails the filtering of one set of culturally determined values through another. While the state intended to produce property rights through this process it encourages instead ethnically defined nations. The Yawuru, who live on the coastal fringe near Broome, are an example.


The Yawuru people of the Broome region of North-west Australia inhabit a watery world. Living on a coastline with one of the most extreme tidal variations in the world large amounts of the land are periodically flooded, creating salt marsh and tidal mangrove creeks. At the other extreme the tides expose reefs and sand bars which hold as much cultural and material interest as the land. Situated in the monsoonal tropics, the land is also periodically inundated with fresh water, though there are few permanent standing bodies of fresh water and no permanent fresh water creeks. The Yawuru people relied on soakages and springs for the fresh water needed to hunt and fish. Consequently, this paper contends, the Yawuru developed a highly labile form of social organisation with the high mobility and social interaction characteristic of the arid areas of the continent. The introduction of the Native Title Act in 1993 allowed the Yawuru to lay claim to their traditional land and waters. The Act foresaw the demonstration of property rights that could be registered. Instead, the court has effectively created a form of ethnic nationality with a right, not to property, but to territory. This paper will examine the tensions produced in this re-description of traditionally labile social practices by the desire of the state for property holders with which to negotiate, on the one hand, and the proclivity of the court to create sub-nationalities which indirectly challenges this desire for fragmentation and individuation.

A nuclear blot on the horizon: contestations of land and sea between the nuclear state and local fishing communities in Tamil Nadu

Author: Raminder Kaur (University of Sussex)

Short Abstract

to follow


In this paper, I examine the contested discourses on land and sea in coastal villages on the southern tip of Tamil Nadu around a site designated to be Asia?s largest nuclear power plant, Koodankulam. I consider the local fishing communities? perceptions and conceptions of the land and sea, as well as the threat of change that the nuclear power station, backed by the central state, poses to their lives and livelihoods. It is clear that very distinct ideas emerge from local and settler state authorities. The beaches are home to the fishing communities by way of tradition and precedent. Legalistically, however, they are government land, subject to coastal management strictures. The fishing communities are appreciative of the sea, applying almost a religious conception to their view of the sea: it is their /amma/ (mother), their provider of daily sustenance amongst other benefits. The statist view sees the sea as, on the one hand, a resource to be desalinated in order to provide much-needed water to the construction of the nuclear plant in a parched area; on the other hand, it is also a potential waste tip for water coolant can be released into it once the reactors go critical, thereby posing a grave danger to fishing communities. Such views are at loggerheads with each other with profound implications for both sides.

Indigenous claims and shifting patterns of ownership: Maori appropriation of the Foreshore and Seabed

Author: Fiona McCormack (University of Waikato)

Short Abstract

The recent expansion of the aquaculture industry in New Zealand signifies a new form of private property rights in the seascape and thus has implications for productive relations and moral claims of ownership. This paper will address how concrete ways of owning among two Maori coastal communities have been reconfigured in the process.


The recent expansion of the aquaculture industry in New Zealand signifies a new form of private property rights in the seascape and thus has implications for productive relations and moral claims of ownership. This technological revolution prompted Maori to claim ownership of the foreshore and seabed in a discourse which emphasised primordial relations of use, customary marine tenure and the sea as constitutive of identity. These claims were countered by legislation which legally repositioned the state as an elite holder of "public property" rights and created a new synthesis of the land-fisheries dichotomy.

Nevertheless, a simple conception of the state as an immoral appropriator of Maori tenure and by extension identity is an essentialised reading of the multileveled and shifting way resources are owned and valued by indigenous groups in contemporary post-colonial states. Local resistance to the extension of private property is a common theme in the colonial milieu. However, in the context of contemporary indigenous claims such resistance need not necessarily emphasise a return to pre-existing systems of communal owning, a romanticised gemeinschaft; resistance may stem from multiple motivations including perceived exclusion from emergent markets, themselves the rasion d'etre of newly created private property regimes.

Whilst Maori claims can be read as a call for a recognition of indigenity, these claims were simultaneously a call for inclusion in a newly important commercial enterprise. This paper will address how concrete relations of owning have been reconfigured in the process by drawing on recent fieldwork with two coastal Maori communities.

The nature of coastlines: among wind mills and reindeer

Author: Gro Ween (University of Oslo)

Short Abstract

Norwegian coast line has become a prominent site of battle for rights of access. Outside the main tourism attractions the coast is also favoured sites for windmills parks. On the foreshore near the Arctic Circle, Southern Sami and their reindeer are attempting new forms of coexistence in the largest windmill park in Norway.


Coastal Southern Sami keep their reindeer near the fjords in the winter. Winter pastures are meagre and limited by the rocky and fragmented Norwegian coastal landscape. Reindeer subside on limited shoreline and marsh vegetation. To ensure the survival of their herds, herders limit the time their animals spend on winter pastures in the autumn, and drive their herds into the mountains as early as possible in the spring. Every winter urged by the herders, reindeer cross waters to coastal islands. Increased pressures on their pastures have made the move to these islands a necessity. The reach of the herds across distances of water has improved with the introduction of landing vessels and ferries to ship hundreds of animals across to fresh pastures. Presently, Southern Sami face new challenges as the European energy crisis increases the search for new sustainable power sources. These islands have become highly desired locations for windmill parks. Norwegian perceptions of natural and national beauty exclude other potential sites, such as the high mountains. Down south, coastal areas are excluded as areas with tourism and holiday homes representing strong private ownership interests. Further out in the ocean, windmills are said to ruin the fisheries. Reindeer and windmills are attempting new forms of co-existence along the subarctic foreshore.