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New Zealand – legal rights for forests and rivers


The Treaty of Waitangi - the legal framework enabling legal personhood for ecosystems in NZ

Te Urewera Act - recognising that a forest has the same legal rights as a citizen

The Whanganui River - legal rights and recognition of the river's sacred spirit

Further reading


Since 2012, some of the most innovative and exciting legal developments recognising the rights of the natural world, have been taking place in New Zealand.  Under the Treaty of Waitangi, signed between the British Crown and Maori tribes in 1840, Maori people have worked hard to negotiate settlement agreements which include a range of elements, including new legal mechanisms to protect the ecological integrity and cultural and spiritual significance of the earth Mother, Papatuanuku.

The Treaty of Waitangi - the legal framework enabling legal personhood for ecosystems in NZ

The Treaty of Waitangi is New Zealand’s founding document. It takes its name from the place in the Bay of Islands where it was first signed, on 6 February 1840. This day is now a public holiday in New Zealand. The Treaty is an agreement, in Māori and English, that was made between the British Crown and about 540 Māori rangatira (chiefs).

The Treaty is a broad statement of principles on which the British and Māori made a political compact to found a nation state and build a government in New Zealand.

It is due to the rights and obligations legally recognised in the Treaty, that Maori iwi (tribes) have been able to negotiate new legal mechanisms to care for and protect ecosystems on their land (and in their water).

How has the Treaty of Waitangi enabled the creation of legal personhood for ecosystems?

For many, many years - in some instances, decades - Maori iwi have been working to seek redress for breaches by the Crown (the government) of the guarantees set out in the Treaty of Waitangi.  These negotiations have resulted in specific claims and settlements, that set out compensation and other issues agreed to between the NZ Government and Maori iwi.

One of the issues that has been negotiated by some Maori peoples, is the use of new legal mechanisms to protect sacred ecosystems.  So, for example, with the Urewera Forest, the first step was a Settlement Agreement in 2012, between Maori iwi and the government.  The second step was having the Settlement enacted through law - which happened in 2014 (see below).

For more information about the Treaty of Waitangi, please click here.

Te Urewera Act - recognising that a forest has the same legal rights as a citizen 

Until 2014, the beautiful, rugged Urewera Forest - in the Hawkes Bay Region of New Zealand's North island - was a national park.

In 2012, a Settlement Agreement was signed between the Maori iwi and New Zealand government, to create a new legal framework for the forest.

In 2014, two years after the original settlement agreement was signed between the Maori iwi and NZ Government under the Treaty of Waitangi, the New Zealand government passed a truly remarkable piece of legislation: the Te Urewera Act.  The first of its kind in the world, the Act removes the land's national park status and grants it legal personhood; giving it the same rights as any citizen in New Zealand.

Importantly, the Act uses the Maori language about [Te Urewera] having its own mana—its own authority, having its own mauri—its own life force, and that Te Urewera has an identity in and of itself.

To read the Te Urewera Act, please click here.   To read an excellent article about the Te Urewera Act, its contents and its ramifications, please click here.

Who will oversee the legislation and care for the Forest?

Te Urewera is now managed not by the Department of Conservation but by the new Te Urewera Board.  This Board is responsible “to act on behalf of, and in the name of, Te Urewera” (s 17(a)).  Te Urewera will still have a management plan like national parks in New Zealand.  The Board, rather than the Department of Conservation, will approve these plans (s 18).  For the first 3 years, the Board has an equal membership of Tūhoe and Crown appointed persons (4 persons each).  Thereafter, the Board will increase by 1 and the ratio will change so that 6 persons are Tūhoe-appointed  and 3 persons are Crown-appointed (s 21).

The Whanganui River - legal rights and recognition of the river's sacred spirit

In 2014, Maori iwi and the New Zealand government signed a Settlement Agreement, which included changing the legal status of the Whanganui River.

To read about the Settlement celebration, and to see a copy of the Settlement Agreement, please click here.

When the Bill is enacted into law this year, the Whanganui Maori iwi and the New Zealand government will work together and speak on behalf of the river. They will be responsible for taking action in court when required and present their arguments for the health and wellbeing of the river.

To read the Te Awa Tupua (Whanganui River) Bill and follow its progress through the New Zealand Parliament, click here.

The legislation is a really wonderful piece of law - it recognises the spirit of river system and acknowledges that it is owned by no-one. Like the Urewera Forest Act, the Whanganui River Agreement, and Bill, completely changes the presumption of human sovereignty over the environment and embraces the Maori perspective - that the landscape is personified, and that the earth is the earth mother Papatuanuku.

Further reading

Please click on the links below for online material about the New Zealand Acts

Please also visit our Resources page and our Rights of Nature page, for further information