Rights for Nature
We drive on to explore Te Urewera, a former national park that is dominated by native forest, or bush as the Kiwis say. Inside the park, our progress is slow, as the road is winding and unsealed. We decide to camp in the middle of the forest. Surrounded by bush, we wake to bird song and use the stream that runs through the campground to freshen up. Freedom camping doesn’t get much better than this!
The land here is the home of the Tūhoe, the local Maori tribe (iwi in their language). In 2014, New Zealand granted legal personality to this area. It was the first time anywhere in the world that a natural phenomenon was recognized as having rights, with the Tūhoe as guardians. At the visitor centre on Lake Waikaremoana, Holly Taylor, a Tūhoe woman, explains why the recognition of Te Urewera as Tūhoe land was significant for her iwi. “In Maori tradition, people cannot own the land, the people belong to the land. It is there when we are born, it is there when we live, and it will be there after we die. It is our duty to be good guardians of the land on which our lives depend, and to pass it on to future generations in the same state as we found it.” The concept strikes us as being a radically different from Western or colonists’ views of nature, in which appropriation and exploitation are the dominant concepts.
Since 2014 two other natural phenomena in New Zealand have been recognised as having legal personality, too: a river and a mountain. Floris reflects: “I guess granting legal personality to natural phenomena is a way to embed a Maori concept in law, which is governed by such (Western) concepts of rights, duties, and property.” In practical terms, it means that the land, river, or mountain is represented by trustees. They look after its long-term interests and is a crucial body in all decision-making processes involving the natural body.
On a hike through the area, we marvel at the purity and wildness of this pristine place. The Tūhoe have been looking well after the park and its legal recognition has given them more tools to do so. It can thus help to protect nature. We intend to do more research on this, so stay tuned for a separate item on rights for nature as a sustainable solution.