New Zealand Legislation: Providing for Nature’s Rights

“…all the rights, powers, duties, and liabilities of a legal person”  Photo: Whanganui River, Gregory Nettleton

Recent changes to New Zealand legislation has given a river and former national park on the North Island the same legal rights as people. In July of 2014, the Te Urewera Act was passed changing the land’s status from a national park to a legal entity that “has all the rights, powers, duties, and liabilities of a legal person,” as stated in the Act. On March 14th 2017, the Whanganui River system was also afforded the same status as a legal entity under the Te Awa Tupua Bill. Both lands have separate boards set up to act on their behalf and manage them.

Western culture has created a belief that humans and nature are two separate entities and humans have the right to exploit and dominate over nature because it benefits society. As the earth continues to face increased rates of environmental destruction and degradation some countries are stepping up. New Zealand has taken into consideration the beliefs and the world-view of the country’s indigenous people, the Māori. According to Jim Williams, a professor at the University of Otago and member of Ngāi Tahu, the two objectives of this legislation are “Firstly to return rangatiratanga (authority) to the iwi from whom it had been taken; secondly, to ensure that conservation measures are actively pursued by the iwi.”

A Closer Look at Te Urewera

Photo: Mist over Te Urewera, Joannah Doherty

For Tūhoe, the local iwi (tribe), Te Urewera is “their place of origin and return, their homeland” and is part of their culture, language, customs and identity according to the Te Urewera Act. The Treaty of Waitangi Negotiations Minister Christopher Finlayson said that the Tūhoe have “suffered some of the worst breaches by the Crown [government] in the country’s history, involving large scale confiscation, brutal military campaigns targeting Tūhoe settlements, and unjust land purchases.” This Act provides financial and cultural redress to Tūhoe and is a central part of the settlement between Tūhoe and the government. Dr. Jacinta Ruru, a law professor at the University of Otago, stated, “national park lands encase the lived homes of Indigenous peoples. Today, the law reflects a new societal goal that seeks to reconcile with Indigenous peoples for the past wrongs of taking their lands and denying them the very means to be true to themselves, their ancestors, and their grandchildren. National parks have the potential to play an instrumental role in committing to this reconciliation journey.”

Photo: Whanganui River, Gregory Nettleton

The Te Urewera Act has also been influential on the global conservation movement as lawsuits to protect the land can now be brought to court on behalf of the land with no personal harm needed to be involved. The National Parks Act 1980 is a mono-cultural, western method of preserving lands, whereas the Te Urewara Act demonstrates a bi-cultural method of showing the importance of lands for both scientific and cultural reasons.

Previous to the Act, Te Urewera was a national park managed by the Department of Conservation. Now, the land will have the Te Urewera Board that will act on behalf of, and in the name of, Te Urewera. This is the first time a national park has been revoked in New Zealand. The Board will manage the land in a similar way to how it was managed as a national park and take into consideration Tūhoetanga (culture, traditions, and way of life of Tūhoe) and traditional Tūhoe concepts of management. For the first three years the Board will consist of four members appointed by Tūhoe and four appointed by the Minister and the Minister for Treaty of Waitangi Negotiations. After three years it will consist of six members appointed by Tūhoe and four appointed by the Ministers.

“This is a profound alternative to the human presumption of sovereignty over the natural world.” – Pita Sharples, Former minister of Māori Affairs

A Closer Look at the Whanganui River

Christopher Finlayson, stated that the Te Awa Tupua Billbrings the longest running litigation in New Zealand’s history to an end,” and that “[t]he Whanganui Iwi has fought for recognition of its relationship with the Whanganui River since the 1870’s.” The Whanganui River is the third longest river in New Zealand and hosts one of New Zealand’s Great Walks: a 145km long canoe trip, the Whanganui Journey. Gregory Nettleton, a Canadian who studied abroad in New Zealand in 2016, paddled the Whanganui Journey and said, “the river itself is a pretty cool place! I think it’s [the Act] a really important step towards us respecting our natural environments.” This new Bill recognizes the Māori world view, “E rere kau mai I te Awa nui mai I te Kahui Maunga ki Tangaroa, Ko au te Awa, Ko te Awa ko au: the great River flows from the mountains to the sea, I am the River and the River is me.” Te Awa Tupuna is viewed as an indivisible and living whole that the Whanganui Iwi are connected to and responsible for.

A board was also formed to manage the Whanganui River under the new legal framework. Te Pou Tupua consists of a board of two people, one nominated by the Whanganui Iwi and one by a government minister and their job is to speak for, and act on behalf of Te Awa Tupua. As part of the Bill and settlement claim the New Zealand government made an initial payment of NZ$30 million to establish a trust fund (Te Korotete) and will also contribute NZ$200,000 each year for 20 years for legal costs and costs associated with the management of Te Awa Tupua by the Board.

“The great River flows from the mountains to the sea, I am the River and the River is me.”        

Photo: Whanganui River, Gregory Nettleton

Marama Fox, the Co-leader of the Māori Party, stated to Parliament in his speech about the Te Awa Tupua Bill on March 15th 2017, “this is our tupuna awa, this is our ancestor” referencing the Māori world-view. In an article in the Guardian, Gerrard Albert, the lead negotiator for the Whanganui iwi, explains this world-view further as “all Māori tribes regard themselves as part of the universe at one with and equal to the mountains, the rivers and the seas.” The Māori world-view differs significantly from a Western view in that Māori are part of the natural world rather than masters of it. According to Jim Williams, “The only opposition [to the legislation] is from that section of society who oppose reparation to Māori.” Tom Brooking, another professor at the University of Otago, stated the management agreement for the two lands empowers Māori much more than anything in New Zealand’s past.

Photo: Trail, Hannah Fake

The former Minister of Māori Affairs, Pita Sharples, stated the settlement “is a profound alternative to the human presumption of sovereignty over the natural world,” and Jacinta Ruru echoed this statement saying, the Act was “undoubtedly legally revolutionary” in New Zealand “and on a world scale” the New York Times reports. Other organizations, including the Earth Law Center have started advocating for the “rights of nature’”. The Earth Law Center states our current laws recognize inherent and inalienable rights of humans because we exist such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. They also state that the natural world has inherent rights because it exists but our human laws ignore them and the environmental laws we do have have been inadequate to protect Earth’s natural systems. The natural world is legally treated as property and it has been acceptable to exploit ecosystems for profit.

New Zealand and a few other countries have taken the first steps forward by giving lands and nature rights. For example, in 2008, change to the Ecuadorian Constitution provided inalienable rights to the environment to “exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution,” and allowed individuals to defend these rights in court on behalf of the environment. On March 20th, 2017, just after the Te Awa Tupua Bill was passed, India passed legislation giving two rivers, the Ganges and Yamuna, the same legal rights as people. According to the Guardian, judges cited the Whanganui River as an example for the new Indian legislation. This new decision means that harming or polluting the river will be legally equivalent to harming a person; both rivers are extremely polluted and some stretches have even been determined as dead by scientists. According to Outside, more than 100 communities in the U.S. have enacted some form of legislation that provides for the rights of nature.

“…globally people are more conscious of indigenous people and their rights to land”                  – Tom Brooking

While a few people oppose this new legislation, overall it has been well received and supported on a global scale. Finlayson points out in a Time article that making nature a legal entity is no different than the legal entities of family trusts, companies, or incorporated societies. Shannon Biggs, director of San Francisco-based Movement Rights, said “All of this work outside the United States makes it so much more possible here,” adding, “The future can look like New Zealand. It’s not scary. We’re not talking about shutting down the American dream, we’re actually talking about how do we rebuild it so it’s a viable one that can be shared with future generations. It’s kind of inevitable,” Outside reports.

Photo: Bears Ears National Monument, Rick Browner /AP

Unfortunately, legislation like the Te Urewera Act and The Te Awa Tupua Bill would not pass at the federal level in the United States currently due to the Trump Administration and as Brooking stated, because “powerful vested interests and large corporations like some of the energy groups… would … be less tolerant … judging by what has happened in North Dakota.” The example of Standing Rock is a step backward for the U.S. in protecting the environment and indigenous rights.” However, there is some hope as Peter Pettengill, a Environmental Studies professor at St. Lawrence University said, “a trend we are seeing, is globally people are more conscious of indigenous people and their rights to land.” It is an incremental process, but Bears Ears National Monument, Devils Tower National Monument along with other parks show progress within the U.S. National Park Service of the recognition of Indigenous peoples spiritual and physical rights to land. New Zealand is paving the way in a global movement of protecting indigenous rights and the environment; hopefully, the US and other countries will follow their lead.

“When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” -Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac


Works Cited

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“Current State & Trends Assessment.” Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005, Accessed 28 Mar. 2017.

Geisinger, Alex. “Sustainable Development and the Domination of Nature: Spreading the Seed of the Western Ideology of Nature.” Boston College Environmental Affairs Law Review, vol. 27, issue 1, 1999, Accessed 28 Mar. 2017.

“International Movement.” Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, 2015, Accessed 24 Mar. 2017.

McCarthy, Julie. “Can India’s Sacred but ‘Dead’ Yamuna River be Saved?”, 11 May 2016, Accessed 28 Mar. 2017.

O’Neil, Devon. “Parks are People Too”, 3 Aug. 2016, Accessed 28 Mar. 2017.

Orange, Claudia. “Treaty of Waitaingi” Te Ara – The Encyclopedia of New Zealand, 2012, Accessed 1 Apr. 2017

Rousseau, Bryant. “In New Zealand, Lands and Rivers Can Be People (Legally Speaking).” The New York Times, 13 Jul. 2016, Accessed 28 Mar. 2017.

Roy, Eleanor Ainge. “New Zealand River Granted Same Legal Rights as Human Being” The Guardian, 16 Mar. 2017, Accessed 28 Mar. 2017.

Ruru, Jacinta. “Tūhoe-Crown Settlement – Te Urewara Act 2014.” Māori Law Review, Oct. 2014, Accessed 20 Mar. 2017.

Safi, Michael. “Ganges and Yamuna Rivers Granted Same Legal Rights as Human Beings” The Guardian, 21 Mar. 2017, Accessed 28 Mar. 2017.

“Te Awa Tupua (Whanganui River Claims Settlement).” Government Bill 129-2. New Zealand Legislation, 2016, Accessed 20 Mar. 2017.

“Te Awa Tupua (Whanganui River Claims Settlement) Bill: Third Reading – Marama Fox, Co Leader of the Māori Party.” Mā, 15 Mar. 2017. Accessed 29 Mar. 2017.

“Te Urewara Act.” Public Act 2014 No 51, New Zealand Legislation, 2014, Accessed 15 Mar. 2017.

“Tuhoe Claims Settlement and Te Urewera Bills Passed.” Department of Conservation: Te Papa Atawhai. 2014, Accessed 1 Apr. 2017.