Legal Personality for Te Urewera
The Tūhoe never signed the Treaty of Waitangi and resisted relinquishing the lands of which they were the guardians. When it was suspected that the Tūhoe harboured a prominent Māori resistance fighter in Te Urewera, the British troops invaded the area, burnt the homes and crops of the Tūhoe and confiscated their land piece by piece. Years later, the land was designated as a national park. One might think that such designation would give sufficient protection to nature but Holly disagrees. “We wanted recognition of the spiritual value that Te Urewera has for us Tūhoe. To us, it is a place with its own identity and mana (soul or energy). It is our homeland and the basis for our culture, our customs, our entire existence. When it was a national park, we felt like guests here.”
That only changed in 2014, a special law was passed which confirmed that Te Urewera has its own legal personality and could never be appropriated or sold. The Tūhoe were recognized as guardians. “That’s when we felt at home again. Now we can take good care of Te Urewera”, Holly smiles.
This law also protects the natural state and biodiversity of the area. A board of trustees made up of Tūhoe and government representatives can represent Te Urewera. “So that means that lawsuits can be filed on behalf of the nature reserve?” Floris asks. “In theory yes”, Holly replies. “But that hasn’t been necessary yet, and that’s not the way we prefer to resolve conflicts.”
Assimilation of Worldviews
According to Holly, legal recognition sends a clear signal. It is now codified in law that people cannot do whatever they want in the area. Anyone who cuts trees without permission, for example, will be held accountable. “We try to convince everyone to respect our customs. That is not always easy, even within our own community. Some Tūhoe opt for financial gain at the expense of nature”, Holly sighs.
With that, Holly touches on an important topic. By giving Te Urewera legal personality, an attempt was made to integrate the Māori worldview into the Western legal system. The law provides an important new instrument for protecting nature: the legal process. But in practice, it is perhaps even more important that the Māori worldview was given such a prominent status, which could lead to more people applying it in their dealings with nature.
At the same time, the importance of legal recognition should not be underestimated. It was unique that a piece of nature received the same legal protection as people and companies. Before 2014, this was not laid down in law anywhere in the world. The recognition in law validates a different perspective: one wherein nature is at least equal to man and man’s creations.