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Jamieson, Jemima --- "The role of Indigenous communities in the pursuit of sustainability" [2010] NZJlEnvLaw 7; (2010) 14 NZJEL 161

Last Updated: 30 January 2023




The Role of Indigenous Communities in the Pursuit of Sustainability

Jemima Jamieson*

The relationship between indigenous knowledge and sustainability has been increasingly applauded in recent years. Indeed, “indigenous sustainability” has been acknowledged worldwide — not only by individual commentators, but also by NGOs and governments. The value of indigenous knowledge is again affirmed by acknowledgements contained within international agreements such as Agenda 21, the Rio Declaration, the Convention on Biological Diversity, and the Earth Charter. This paper evaluates the validity of these claims both on a general level and in a specifically New Zealand context. To this end, key principles underpinning tikanga Maori are examined in light of two highly regarded environmental ethics: the stewardship ethic and Aldo Leopold’s land ethic. This analysis reveals that tikanga Maori systems of resource use and management have much to offer a world seeking sustainability. However, it must also be stressed that the integration of such concepts into the mainstream requires an informed, considerate and objective approach that both empowers and includes tangata whenua.


Indigenous communities are frequently believed to have a unique affinity with their natural environment. The fact that such communities around the world have sustained themselves for successive generations without having a detrimental impact has prompted much commentary on the nexus between indigenous

*This paper was written in completion of the University of Auckland LLM course Law, Ethics and Governance for Sustainability, in 2009. The author would like to thank Kathryn Kintzele and Professors J Ronald Engel and Klaus Bosselmann for their encouragement.



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knowledge and sustainability. Such discussions have seen the emergence of a number of international agreements, such as the Rio Declaration, the Convention on Biological Diversity, and the Earth Charter, which affirm the ecological value of indigenous communities and promote the need to both preserve and utilise such knowledge. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples similarly recognises “that respect for indigenous knowledge, cultures and traditional practices contributes to sustainable and equitable development and proper management of the environment”.1 It remains necessary, however, to question the validity of such affirmations and to critically examine the role that indigenous communities could play as the world strives towards sustainability. In New Zealand, customary Maori values and practices pertaining to the use and management of land and natural resources have been incorporated into domestic legislation to an extent. However, a consideration of the beliefs, values and practices underpinning tikanga Maori, together with an examination of how these values relate to existing frameworks of environmental ethics, reveals just how rich a reservoir of ecological wisdom tikanga Maori is. Such a conclusion necessitates further meditation on how these values could be used to greater effect in New Zealand.


In recent years it has become increasingly popular to hail indigenous knowl- edge as a means of achieving sustainability. This is visible on the world stage: various commentators have expressed a resolute belief that “the benefits of indigenous knowledge which are evident in indigenous communities can be used today to avert the ecological and economic crises of modernity, thereby leading modernizing societies towards sustainable development”;2 the World Conservation Union has gone so far as to describe the environmental knowledge of many indigenous communities as “an asset of incalculable value”;3 and soft law documents such as the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development 1992, Agenda 21, the Convention on Biological Diversity, and the Earth Charter

  1. United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, A/RES/61/295, 13 September 2007, available at <> (accessed 19 June 2009).
  2. Bosire Maragia, “The Indigenous Sustainability Paradox and the Quest for Sustainability in Post-Colonial Societies: Is Indigenous Knowledge All that is Needed?” (2006) 18 Geo Int’l Envtl L Rev 197, at 210.
  3. Benjamin J Richardson, “Indigenous Peoples, International Law and Sustainability” (2001) 10(1) RECIEL 1, at 3.



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2000 have recognised the connection between indigenous knowledge and sustainable development.

Principle 22 of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development 1992 provides, for instance, that:4

Indigenous peoples and their communities, and other communities, have a vital role in environmental management and development because of their knowledge and traditional practices. States should recognize and duly support their identity, culture and interests and enable their effective participation in the achievement of sustainable development.

Similarly, Chapter 26 of Agenda 21 is concerned with the role of indigenous communities in the quest for sustainability. A particularly pertinent section reads:5

In view of the interrelationship between the natural environment and its sus- tainable development and the cultural, social, economic and physical well- being of indigenous people, national and international efforts to implement environmentally sound and sustainable development should recognize, accommodate, promote and strengthen the role of indigenous people and their communities.

The soft law Earth Charter includes Principle 12(b):6

Uphold the right of all, without discrimination, to a natural and social environment supportive of human dignity, bodily health, and spiritual well- being, with special attention to the rights of indigenous peoples and minorities



b. Affirm the right of indigenous peoples to their spirituality, knowledge, lands and resources and to their related practice of sustainable livelihoods.

And Article 8( j) of the Convention on Biological Diversity states that:7

  1. Rio Declaration on Environment and Development (“the Rio Declaration”) (Rio de Janeiro, 13 June 1992; UN Doc A/Conf151/26 (vol I) 31 ILM 874 (1992)) principle 22.
  2. Agenda 21: Programme of Action for Sustainable Development (“Agenda 21”) (Rio de Janeiro, 14 June 1992; UN Doc A/Conf151=26 (1992), 31 ILM 874 (1992)) Chapter 26.1.
  3. Earth Charter, available at <> (accessed 6 May 2009) Principle 12(b). 7 Convention on Biological Diversity (Rio de Janeiro, 5 June 1992; 31 ILM 818 (1992))

Article 8( j).



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Each Contracting Party shall, as far as possible and as appropriate:


( j) Subject to its national legislation, respect, preserve and maintain knowledge, innovations and practices of indigenous and local communities embodying traditional lifestyles relevant for the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity and promote their wider application with the approval and involvement of the holders of such knowledge, innovations and practices and encourage the equitable sharing of the benefits arising from the utilization of such knowledge, innovations and practices;

Whilst these affirmations of the ecological value of indigenous knowledge may well be valid, it is necessary to examine the reasons why this may be the case. It is also imperative to question whether the blanket endorsements contained within each of the aforementioned agreements is warranted.

2.1 Defining “Indigenous Knowledge”

Before becoming fully embroiled in the various virtues and drawbacks of “indigenous sustainability”,8 one must beg the question: what exactly is indigenous knowledge? The answer is somewhat unsatisfactory — namely, that the phrase “indigenous knowledge” has no definitive meaning.9 However, the United Nations Environment Programme (“UNEP”) defines indigenous knowledge as:10

The knowledge that an indigenous (local) community accumulates over generations of living in a particular environment. This definition encompasses all forms of knowledge — technologies, know-how skills, practices and beliefs — that enable the community to achieve stable livelihoods in their environment.

One must also note that numerous other phrases are employed as synonyms for indigenous knowledge. These include “‘traditional knowledge,’ ‘local knowledge,’ ‘traditional ecological knowledge,’ ‘folklore,’ ‘traditional bio- cultural contribution,’ and ‘traditional biocultural knowledge’”.11 These likewise describe “a cumulative body of knowledge and beliefs handed down through generations by cultural transmission about the relationship of living

  1. Maragia, supra note 2. The term “indigenous sustainability” is used consistently throughout Maragia’s article.
  2. Ibid, at 203.
  3. United Nations Environment Programme (“UNEP”), Indigenous Knowledge Home, available at <> (accessed 29 June 2009).
  4. Maragia, supra note 2, at 202–203.



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beings, (including humans) with one another and with their environment”.12 Such knowledge is established over generations and developed “by local people through direct interactions between human beings and nature. It is knowledge that the locals use in their everyday lives as they strive to sustain their livelihoods.”13

The broad reference that has been made to “indigenous culture” in inter- national documents has, however, incurred the criticism that indigenous knowledge is being essentialised.14 More specifically, some edicts at inter- national law have been described as vague15 and condemned for ostensibly not allowing for variations of indigenous concepts of land ownership and land care across regions. Indeed, “much indigenous environmental knowledge tends to be location specific, arrived at through a unique co-evaluation between social and ecological systems”.16 It should thus be recognised that each indigenous culture offers a unique perspective, grounded as each is in a distinctive tradition, location or society.17 Moreover, the content of indigenous knowledge can vary between indigenous societies and even generations.18 This is seen within Maoridom, as understandings of tikanga Maori can differ between iwi.19 Essentialising indigenous knowledge is also problematic due to the fact that whilst some indigenous societies have a very positive relationship with their natural environment and thus provide an excellent example of sustainable living, others may have track records that are far from exemplary.20

  1. Madhav Gadgil, Fikret Berkes and Carl Folke, “Indigenous Knowledge for Biodiversity Conservation” (May 1993) 22(2/3) AMBIO 151, at 151.
  2. Maragia, supra note 2, at 203.
  3. Richardson, supra note 3, at 3: “Whilst it is clear that there is a strong nexus between biodiversity and indigenous cultural diversity, much discussion of this ‘nexus’ tends to be overly generalised and rhetorical. Indigenous communities have often been portrayed as ideal conservationists, possessing a spiritual world-view in which humankind and nature are regarded as indivisible.”
  4. Ibid, at 8–9.
  5. Ibid, at 3. See also UNEP, Indigenous Knowledge Home, supra note 10: “[Indigenous knowledge (‘IK’)] is unique to every culture and society and it is embedded in community practices, institutions, relationships and rituals. IK is considered a part of the local knowledge in the sense that it is rooted in a particular community and situated within broader cultural traditions. It is a set of experiences generated by people living in those communities.”
  6. Maragia, supra note 2, at 203. Quoting from MOST Clearing House, Best Practices on Indigenous knowledge, available at <> (accessed 28 February 2005).
  7. Ibid.
  8. New Zealand Law Commission, Maori Custom and Values in New Zealand Law: Study Paper 9 (NZLC SP9, March 2001) at 4.
  9. Maragia, supra note 2, at 219–228. These passages detail criticism of the indigenous sustainability claim and call into question whether indigenous (pre-colonial) societies were sustainable in any sense of the word — that is, economically, socially or ecologically.



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2.2 Arguments for Indigenous Sustainability

It is argued that the world should take heed of indigenous knowledge because it represents a body of wisdom accumulated over generations and sometimes millennia. In this regard, indigenous knowledge has a distinct advantage over that of Western scientists and ecologists, who may observe and examine a locale but only do so for a limited time or sporadically over a given timeframe.21 By way of contrast, indigenous peoples frequently possess “transgenerational relationships to particular landscapes”22 and thus have on hand “a wealth of observations at the level of populations and species”.23 Such relationships often, and almost inevitably, translate to members of such communities being remarkably “in tune” with their natural environment. It is argued that it is due to this in-depth and localised knowledge that indigenous communities were able to “live within ecological limits and to sustain livelihoods for millennia”.24 It is this very long-term survival of indigenous societies, and the fact that this survival was not accompanied by any major or lasting ecological footprint, that has led many to conclude indigenous societies were sustainable and moreover have the track record to prove it.25 It has also fuelled the perception that indigenous knowledge could be the world’s saving grace as we head deeper into an abyss of environmental degradation.

Links have also been made between cultural and biological diversity. Solomon believes that the respect indigenous cultures typically feel towards the environment is one of the decisive factors in the continuation of the biodiversity within most indigenous communities.26 Furthermore, it would seem that the preservation and revival of one would have positive consequences for the

Amongst other arguments, it is suggested that the underlying philosophies of indigenous populations were not sustainable, and that they left no devastating ecological footprint merely because they lacked modern technology (221–222). It is also proposed that migration patterns cast “serious doubts on the general assumption that pre-colonial societies lived in one place for millennia, let alone that they acted according to the presumed ecological ethic” (223–224).

  1. Jesse Ford, “The Relevance of Indigenous Knowledge to Contemporary Sustainability”, Proc International Fisheries Economics and Trade, 1–7, available at < dept/IIFET/2000/papers/ford.pdf> (accessed 1 June 2009) at 1.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Maragia, supra note 2, at 217.
  5. Ibid, at 210.
  6. Maui Solomon, “Strengthening Traditional Knowledge Systems and Customary Law”, Paper presented to UNCTAD Expert Meeting on Systems and National Experiences for Protecting Traditional Knowledge, Innovations and Practices, Geneva, 30 October–1 November 2000, available at <> (accessed 22 June 2009) at para 4.



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other.27 This phenomenon was recognised in the United Nations’ investigation into the cultural and spiritual values of biodiversity. This study concluded that “there was a direct relation between cultural diversity, linguistic diversity and biological diversity and that the quickening pace of loss of traditional knowledge was having a corresponding devastating impact on all biological diversity”.28 Contemporary linguistics studies have likewise revealed that with the disappearance of language comes a disappearance of traditional knowledge.29 Conversely, it was found that when “traditional knowledge is supported, rewarded and encouraged, we actually see a revitalization of local languages and an increase in local biological diversity”.30 A UNEP study into the knowledge of various indigenous communities in Kenya, Swaziland, South Africa and Tanzania similarly found that where indigenous knowledge was ignored, subsequent environmental degradation also led to the onslaught of poverty in these regions.31 It therefore follows that we should seek not only to nurture the environmental knowledge of indigenous communities, but also make concerted efforts to protect indigenous cultures themselves. Harmsworth goes further, advocating the need for an “indigenous renaissance”.32 Either way, it is imperative to stem the tide of monoculturalism and recognise that there is both beauty and value in cultural diversity. The Convention on Biological Diversity, which formally recognises the interrelationship between cultural and biological diversity,33 is an important step in the right direction.

Proponents of indigenous sustainability also indicate the dual role of indigenous communities, who are simultaneously “victims of environmental degradation and protectors of vulnerable ecosystems”.34 It is true that “the areas of greatest biological diversity are areas occupied by people with distinctive cultures and in those occupied by indigenous peoples whose languages and

  1. Rosemary J Coombe, “The Recognition of Indigenous Peoples’ and Community Traditional Knowledge in International Law” (2001) 14 St Thom L Rev 275, at 279.
  2. Richardson, supra note 3, at 3.
  3. Coombe, supra note 27, at 279.
  4. Ibid.
  5. UNEP, Indigenous Knowledge in Disaster Management in Africa (UNEP, Kenya, 2008) at 9–10, available at < > (accessed 20 June 2009).
  6. Garth Harmsworth, “Indigenous concepts, values and knowledge for sustainable develop- ment: New Zealand case studies”, Paper presented to 7th Joint Conference: Preservation of Ancient Cultures and the Globalization Scenario, School of Maori and Pacific Development & International Centre for Cultural Studies (“ICCS”) India, 22–24 November 2002, University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand, available at <http://www.landcareresearch.> (accessed 28 June 2009).
  7. Coombe, supra note 27, at 279.
  8. Ford, supra note 21, at 3.



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traditional life ways are threatened”.35 Whether this is a coincidence or due to the operation of ecologically sustainable practices and traditions is an interesting question. However, it seems likely that given the continued survival of these various species despite their proximity to human societies, the ecological wisdom of these communities has enabled this sustained co-existence.

The Brundtland Report famously defines sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.36 Whilst the con- cept requires finding an appropriate balance between social, economic and environmental concerns, it is mandatory that the ecological dimension of sustainability is neither overlooked nor subordinated to the other two.37 Indeed, the environmental dimension can be seen as the most central, most funda- mental concern. Logically thinking through cause and effect, one can see that ecological unsustainability underpins the majority of the world’s problems. For example, unsustainable use of the environment has impacts on soil fertility, water quality and biodiversity, which have flow-on effects for both the quality and quantity of crop yields, in turn leading to famine, starvation, poverty and conflicts over the distribution of resources. Likewise, a positive utilisation of indigenous knowledge could have far-reaching implications. UNEP, for example, found that “the use and application of appropriate indigenous knowledge systems can promote environmental consideration (land, forests, grasslands, wetlands and biodiversity) and management of disasters in disaster prevention, mitigation, recovery, prediction or early warning, preparedness,

  1. Coombe, supra note 27, at 277.
  2. World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future (Oxford and New York, Oxford University Press, 1987), available at < wced-ocf.htm> (accessed 3 June 2009). Cited as the “Brundtland Report” throughout.
  3. Klaus Bosselmann, The Principle of Sustainability (Hampshire, Ashgate, 2009) at 64–66. At the heart of New Zealand’s Resource Management Act 1991 (“RMA”) lies the overriding purpose of sustainable management (s 5). “Sustainable management” is defined in s 5(2) as “managing the use, development, and protection of natural and physical resources in a way, or at a rate, which enables people and communities to provide for their social, economic, and cultural wellbeing and for their health and safety while — (a) sustaining the potential of natural and physical resources (excluding minerals) to meet the reasonably foreseeable needs of future generations; and (b) safeguarding the life-supporting capacity of air, water, soil, and ecosystems; and (c) avoiding, remedying, or mitigating any adverse effects of activities on the environment”. New Zealand courts have applied the overall purpose of “sustainable management” in two ways, however. The first is to adopt an “overall judgment approach” where the economic, social and environmental considerations are weighed by the presiding judges. The second approach has been termed the “ecological bottom line”, where priority is given to environmental considerations. Needless to say, the former approach is the more frequently applied of the two. Moreover, within this approach it is common for economic considerations to outweigh all others.



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response and rehabilitation”.38 This study furthermore demonstrates that the use of indigenous knowledge pertaining to food production and preservation, together with traditional medicinal practices, may help to alleviate poverty.39

Accompanying the increased recognition of the value of indigenous knowl- edge, however, is increased anxiety over the subsequent impact on indigenous communities themselves. As Richardson states, “indigenous people are concerned about uses of their heritage without their consent and the impacts of some uses on cultural integrity”.40 Intellectual property rights have been identified as one means of “preventing loss of traditional knowledge and other cultural heritage, and to gain a fair share of the benefits from its use”.41 Intellectual property rights — such as patents and copyrights — operate to exclude non-holders from commercially exploiting the object of the right (here, indigenous knowledge) for the right’s duration.42 Intellectual property rights also ensure that indigenous peoples would not only be recognised, but would receive a degree of remuneration for the use of the knowledge that has been built up by their communities over successive generations. There has been controversy, however, as to whether protecting indigenous knowledge via such rights is appropriate. Laura Westra is amongst those who oppose such measures, arguing that to consider indigenous knowledge intellectual property would be to misplace the appropriate emphasis, “as the traditional approach of indigenous peoples to the land, for instance, is one of deep kinship and respect. The land, all the creatures it supports and all its processes are not viewed as a commodity.”43 Others, while acknowledging that in some cases intellectual property rights may be an appropriate measure, believe that more often they are not. Such commentators point to the binaries represented by indigenous culture and Western systems of intellectual property rights — the typically communal ownership of assets in indigenous society as opposed to the individualism and exclusivity of Western intellectual property rights; the respect, conservation and desire for harmony underpinning indigenous knowledge as opposed to the commercial interests which tend to motivate intellectual property rights — and conclude: “round pegs do not fit well within square holes”.44 Interestingly, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples officially recognises the right of indigenous peoples “to maintain, control, protect and

  1. UNEP, Indigenous Knowledge in Disaster Management in Africa, supra note 31, at 10 (accessed 11 June 2009).
  2. Ibid.
  3. Richardson, supra note 3, at 9.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Laura Westra, Environmental Justice and the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (London, Earthscan, 2008) at 11.
  7. Solomon, supra note 26, at paras 5–6.



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develop their intellectual property over such cultural heritage, traditional knowledge, and traditional cultural expressions”.45 This explicitly includes “knowledge of the properties of flora and fauna”.46

2.3 Criticisms of the Indigenous Sustainability Thesis

Indigenous sustainability has not only been the subject of praise and celebra- tion, however. The perceived connection has also been criticised. Some commentators, for example, argue that not all indigenous environmental practices are sustainable and that not all lived in harmony with their natural environment.47 This is the thesis of Maragia, who primarily cites African examples in support of his claim.48 Maragia posits, for instance, that African migration data showing the transience of many African communities prior to contact with Europeans49 calls into question “the long-term viability of many of the pre-colonial societies”.50 It is important at this juncture to note that this is in direct contrast to UNEP, which, based on the experience of a number of African nations, believes that in many parts of Africa indigenous knowledge continues to form a cohesive body which is still utilised today.51 Furthermore, UNEP views that it is this knowledge that has enabled indigenous African communities to “live in harmony with their environment over generations

... guid[ing] indigenous peoples on how to sustainably utilise their natural resources using a variety of innovations to deal with environmental conservation and natural disaster management”.52 Such beliefs are substantiated by its research into indigenous communities in South Africa, Tanzania, Swaziland and Kenya. From these studies it emerged that indigenous knowledge was relevant not only to conservation, but also “disaster prevention and mitigation, early warning, preparedness and response, and post-disaster recovery”.53 Indigenous knowledge as it applied to farming can be cited as an example of its usefulness in sustainably using the land — the UNEP study found that “many of the

45 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Article 31(1). 46 Ibid.

  1. Gadgil et al, supra note 12, at 151.
  2. Maragia, supra note 2, at 201: “Indigenous knowledge is a necessary ingredient, but certainly is not a sufficient tool for reversing the crisis of modernity in the Third World”; “Using examples primarily from Africa, this article argues that there is little evidence to support the claim that a shift to indigenous knowledge would promote sustainability in post-colonial societies.”
  3. Ibid, at 220.
  4. Ibid.
  5. UNEP, Indigenous Knowledge Home, supra note 10 (accessed 20 June 2009).
  6. Ibid.
  7. UNEP, Indigenous Knowledge in Disaster Management in Africa, supra note 31, at 4 (accessed 11 September 2008).



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indigenous knowledge approaches to environmental conservation included such technologies and practices as shifting cultivation, mixed cropping or intercropping, minimum tillage and agro-forestry, as well as transhumance”.54 Such practices were discovered to be commonplace and, used together with other land management systems, promoted higher yields whilst simultaneously conserving the environment.55

Querying whether indigenous knowledge really is sustainable is also vital in the New Zealand context, where the sustainability of traditional Maori society has been called into question by its role in the extinction of thirty-two species of indigenous birds,56 including the moa.57 One should consider whether this revelation negates the value of the ecological practices built up over time. One must also ask whether Maori society learned from these experiences and adapted its systems of land use and management so as to avoid similar incidents in the future. While such questions are imperative, it is equally important not to throw in the towel and dismiss such accumulated knowledge out of hand. The appropriate response is rather to continue examining the content, practices and consequences of indigenous systems of land care and management, but to do so with eyes wide open.

As indicated by the very definition of indigenous knowledge, there is a strong tendency for such wisdom to be localised.58 It must therefore be recog- nised that specialised knowledge, insight and practices that work to great effect in certain regions, may not have the same effect elsewhere. One cannot simply transpose environmental philosophies — it is more complicated than that. This should cause one to pause and consider again the appropriateness of agreements which, without any caveats, promote the environmental practices of all indigenous communities.

  1. UNEP, Nature Conservation Overview, available at < asp?id=Nature%20Conservation%20Overview> (accessed 9 September 2008).
  2. UNEP, Indigenous Knowledge in Disaster Management in Africa, supra note 31, at 7 (accessed 11 September 2008).
  3. Michael King, The Penguin History of New Zealand (New Zealand, Penguin Books, 2003) at 16.
  4. Ministry for the Environment, Our environment and people — Ma¯ori environmental values, available at < environment/page5.html> (accessed 26 June 2009). “The Polynesian ancestors of the Ma¯ori people came to New Zealand by canoe between 1000 AD and 1350 AD. After Polynesian settlement, fire had a more widespread and frequent impact on the environment. By about 1600 AD, about a third of the original forest cover had been cleared and replaced by tussock, bracken, and light scrub. With the change in landscape, a quarter of New Zealand’s endemic land-based birds, including eight species of moa, and a fifth of endemic seabirds became extinct (Ministry for the Environment, 1997).”
  5. Richardson, supra note 3, at 3.



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2.4 Appropriateness of Blanket Endorsements of Indigenous Systems

Based on the aforementioned reservations, one can conclude that any blanket affirmations of indigenous knowledge are dangerous, as not all indigenous systems and worldviews are conducive to sustainability. It is important, however, not to reject all indigenous systems. In order to avoid controversy, international documents ought to include the qualification that only those indigenous systems found and proved to be sustainable should be utilised in attempts to attain sustainability, whether these efforts be regional, national or international. The Earth Charter is one soft law document that does this well. It both endorses the transmission and dissemination of values and traditions, but specifies that the endorsement extends only to those “that support the long- term flourishing of Earth’s human and ecological communities”.59 This reflects the global need to move forward both with open eyes and minds, objectively assessing each system of indigenous knowledge and incorporating only those indigenous practices and values consistent with sustainability.


In New Zealand, the phrase “tikanga Maori” is typically used to describe Maori customary law.60 It is important to note, however, that the term “tikanga” is merely the closest Maori equivalent to the European concepts of law and custom.61 The ambit of “tikanga” is actually much wider, as is revealed by an examination of the etymology of the term. “Tikanga” is derived from two words: “tika” and “nga”. “Tika” is an adjective and can be understood as right, correct, or fair.62 “Nga” describes a way of doing something.63 Taken together, the term literally translates to “‘way(s) of doing and thinking held by Ma¯ori to be just and correct, the right Ma¯ori ways’”.64 Tikanga is thus “strongly normative”.65 Fiona Wright, contemplating the New Zealand Law Commission’s attempts to define and explain the term and concept of tikanga Maori, appreciates the complexities of the term. She describes tikanga Maori as combining “rules with values, and procedures with principles”,66 and goes on to ponder the inherent spirituality

  1. Earth Charter, Principle 4.
  2. New Zealand Law Commission, supra note 19, at 15. 61 Ibid.
  3. Ibid, at 16.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Alastair S Gunn, “Environmental Ethics in a New Zealand Context” (February 2007) NZ Journal of Forestry 7, at 10.
  7. Fiona Wright, “Law, Religion and Tikanga Maori” (2007) 5 NZJPIL 261, at 264.



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of a number of the values underpinning tikanga Maori.67 The values, principles and practices of tikanga Maori have a huge influence on all aspects of Maori life, for an individual who disobeys “tikanga does not merely act differently from what is customary but diverges from normal acceptable behaviour”.68 It is important, for our purposes, that tikanga Maori comprises a number of elements which determine the relationship that Maori, as tangata whenua, have with their natural environment and influence the way in which resources are used and managed. Indeed, as is revealed by an exploration of certain tikanga principles, “from a resource management perspective, Tikanga provides a framework for rules that govern harvesting, the care and respect for customary resources and the environment”.69 Moreover, tikanga Maori has a number of implications for the wider New Zealand community, as “respect for tikanga is a central feature of criminal justice and healthy policy and practice as well as environmental management in New Zealand”.70

In order to determine whether tikanga Maori supports sustainability and assess whether it does, in and of itself, constitute a valuable framework of environmental ethics, it is necessary to explore a number of tikanga values and their environmental implications. Before embarking on this analysis, however, it is important to acknowledge the connection that Maori have with their natural environment. In 2001 a New Zealand Law Commission inquiry into Maori customs and values reported that Maori have a deep connection to the land, which “was and remains integral to group identity and well-being”.71 New Zealand’s Ministry for the Environment has also described Maori and the environment as being “intrinsically inter-twined”.72 Over centuries, this relationship has been honed to the point that acute observation of the natural environment has left Maori with a complex and unique body of knowledge, which the Ministry recognises as enabling Maori “to contribute, alongside of western scientific knowledge and expertise, to the development of tools and processes for ensuring that the mauri (life force) of the environment is maintained and improved”.73

This rather profound relationship can be illustrated by any number of Maori customs and practices. It is reflected, for example, in the way Maori introduce

  1. Ibid.
  2. Gunn, supra note 65, at 10.
  3. Laura Whangapirita, Shaun Awatere and Linda Nikora, “Maori Perspectives on the Environment: A Review of Policy Submissions Made by Iwi to Environment Waikato”, Technical Report No 3 (Hamilton, October 2003) at 12.
  4. Gunn, supra note 65, at 10.
  5. New Zealand Law Commission, supra note 19, at 47.
  6. Ministry for the Environment, Maori Input into the Environmental Performance Indicators Programme: Signposts for Sustainability (Wellington, Ministry for the Environment, April 1999) at 7.
  7. Ibid.



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themselves — formally citing the major features, such as mountains, rivers, lakes and so forth, of the landscape from which they and their ancestors come.74 This intrinsic connection between Maori and their natural environment is also emphasised by their description of themselves as tangata whenua — literally people of the land. At first glance, this point may appear superficial, but scratch the surface and one discovers that this self-description neatly encapsulates the Maori worldview. It is significant because it again echoes their identification as the children of Papatuanuku.75 Their care for the land is also demonstrated through the systems and principles that for centuries have been used to manage both the land itself and its natural resources. These factors all suggest that Maori are in possession of that ecocentric ethic which many argue is necessary in order to truly achieve sustainability — namely, Maori perceive humanity as merely a part of nature, rather than separate and superior to it: they are occupiers of the land, rather than its owners. Thus Maori culture breathes life into the idea of interdependency of man and nature, as they have an entrenched “understanding that all life is created from Papatuanuku and temporarily supported by her in an interdependent way”.76 Indeed, “the Maori approach to environmental management incorporates the needs and values of people and recognises the interrelated nature of the natural world. Maori environmental practice holds the same validity today as in pre-European times”.77

In many ways it is difficult to isolate specific tikanga Maori principles, as they collectively form part of a holistic worldview and a holistic system of environmental regulation. However, the following concepts may be regarded as being among the most fundamental values informing land use and the management of natural resources. A survey of such principles is necessary before one can begin to comprehend the environmental philosophy underlying tikanga Maori.

  1. Ibid, at 31: “Numerous whakatauki (sayings), identifying the connectedness of particular mountains, rivers or lakes, tribes and people, are constantly invoked to reaffirm whanau- ngatanga between people and their lands.”
  2. Ibid, at 32: “The familiar refrain — I te timatanga, ka moe a Rangi raua ko Papa. In the beginning was the joining between the heaven and the earth. — serves to remind Maori of the fact that for them humanity is directly descended from Rangi and Papa. The myths and legends concerning them, their eldest son Tane Mahuta and his siblings is an indigenous body of knowledge which seeks to explain the origins of the universe and the way things are in the world.”
  3. Sally Blundell, “Kaitiakitanga: sustaining our future” (Spring 2006) 32 Te Karaka, the Ngai Tahu Magazine 49, at 49.
  4. Ministry for the Environment, supra note 72, at 3.



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3.1 Whanaungatanga

Whanaungatanga has been described as the “most pervasive” value of tikanga Maori.78 Whanaungatanga gives expression to the emphasis traditionally placed on relationships by tangata whenua, who believe that relationships “between people; between people and the physical world; and between people and the atua (spiritual entities)” are everything.79 The principle furthermore dictates that such relationships are defined by a sense of “belonging, togetherness [and] relatedness”.80 Whanaungatanga also imposes obligations, requiring tangata whenua to maintain the balance necessary to maintain healthy relationships.81 New Zealand history is riddled with attempts to undermine tikanga Maori as it applied to land — this was the end sought by the Native Land Court82 and other Acts of Parliament. However, “[d]espite such attempts whanaungatanga values remain very strong in modern Ma¯ori society and continue to inform the nature of the relationships between peoples and their ancestral lands”.83

3.2 Mauri

Another fundamental tikanga concept is that of mauri.84 Maori consider that “all things have a mauri or life force”85 which, through kaitiakitanga, should be protected.86 Mauri also has something of a dual function in the Maori worldview, as it is perceived to be both that which renders every element in the

  1. New Zealand Law Commission, supra note 19, at 30. 79 Ibid, at 30–31.
  2. Harmsworth, supra note 32, at 4.
  3. Hirini (Sidney) Moko Mead, Tikanga Maori: Living by Ma¯ori Values (Wellington, Huia, 2003) at 28.
  4. James Belich, Making Peoples: A History of the New Zealanders: From Polynesian settle- ment to the end of the nineteenth century (New Zealand, Penguin Books, 2007) at 258. The Native Land Court, established in 1865, was a “notorious instrument ... designed to destroy Maori communal land tenure and so both facilitate Pakeha land buying and ‘detribalise’ Maori”. “Between 1865 and 1873, the court granted tenure to a small number of owners, usually ten, who sometimes acted as individuals rather than trustees for their hapu. Thereafter, all Maori with rights to a particular piece of land were eligible to be registered as individual shareholders in it by the court. But they had to be there to be registered. If a few of many owners decided to take their land before the court, this pressured the others into doing so too, to protect their rights — otherwise the land might be sold from under them. Individual shareholders succumbed to pressures more readily than did groups.” The Native Land Court was divisive — both splitting Maori communities internally and also undermining their traditionally collective notions of land ownership.
  5. New Zealand Law Commission, supra note 19, at 31. 84 Ministry for the Environment, supra note 72, at 3.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.



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natural world unique, and that which knits and bonds all elements together.87 Importantly, mauri can be aligned with the idea of the intrinsic value of nature

— a principle contained within soft law documents such as the Earth Charter. This is the idea that nature should be valued and protected for its own sake, rather than its usefulness for humanity, which would be the utilitarian viewpoint. Mauri plays an important role in Maori practices of resource management.88 This is due to the belief that the mauri and health of any given ecosystem are inextricably linked: “the mauri of the ecosystem is directly impacted upon by the state of the environment. [Likewise, the] ... state of the environment is considered by the Tangata Whenua to reflect its mauri. This includes all land, air, flora & fauna — nga taonga i tuku iho (those treasures handed down)”.89 This nexus has formed the basis for a number of proposals to enhance resource management practices and processes in the New Zealand context. For example, an engineering professor at the University of Auckland, Te Kipa Kepa Brian Morgan, recently presented a conference paper entitled “A Tangata Whenua Perspective on Sustainability using the Mauri Model”.90 In this paper, Morgan delivers “an enhanced understanding of the concept of Mauri, the basis of Tangata Whenua traditional belief and practice in relation to the environment”.91 He goes on to modify the diagram traditionally used to illustrate the model of strong sustainability. Morgan replaces the three concentric circles of the strong sustainability model92 with four concentric circles, representing the “interactive aspects of our ecosystem”.93 In this model the innermost circle is concerned with the mauri of the whanau (aligned with economic analysis); this is followed by the mauri of community (well-being of society); the mauri of hapu (integrity of cultural identity); and finally, the mauri of the environment (integrity of

  1. Rev Maori Marsden, Resource Management Law Reform: The Natural World and Natural Resources: Maori Value Systems and Perspectives (Working Paper No 29, Part A, Ministry for the Environment, Wellington, July 1988) at 24.
  2. Whangapirita et al, supra note 69, at 4.
  3. Te Kipa Kepa Brian Morgan, “A Tangata Whenua Perspective on Sustainability using the Mauri Model: Towards decision making balance with regard to our social, economic, environmental and cultural well-being”, Paper presented to the International Conference on Sustainability, Engineering and Science, Auckland, New Zealand, 7–9 July 2004, at 8, available at < pdf> (accessed 28 June 2009).
  4. Ibid, at 1.
  5. Ibid, at 2.
  6. Samuel Mann, Computing for Sustainability — Need to visualise sustainability, available at < sustainability/> (accessed 1 July 2009). The strong sustainability model positions economic concerns at the heart of the diagram, followed by social concerns, and ascribes the third, outermost layer to overarching environmental concerns and considerations.
  7. Morgan, supra note 89, at 6.


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the ecosystem) forms the outer layer, and thus the predominant concern.94 The environmental impact of a development is, under this model, assessed in relation to whether the option will enhance, diminish or have a neutral effect on the mauri of the aspect under consideration.95 Similarly, in submissions to Environment Waikato, tangata whenua have made explicit their concern for the mauri of waterways, which they believe should be protected from waste and pollution.96 The tangata whenua furthermore expressed their support for any conservation measures that would avoid negative impacts on the mauri of the water.97 It was also proposed that greater cooperation between iwi and developers would both aid cultural understanding and effect the restoration and protection of the mauri of the water.98 These examples illustrate the practical implications of the tikanga Maori principle, mauri.

3.3 Tapu and Noa

Tapu forms another integral component in the Maori worldview. Like whanau- ngatanga, tapu has been described as underpinning many of the key concepts of tikanga Maori — some even going as far as describing it as “the overarching concept upon which Maori society is based”.99 Tapu is often translated as sacred, and its corollary — noa — as profane or safe.100 However, this is rather simplistic, and the reality is that the concept of tapu goes much deeper. Durie notes that two approaches can be taken to tapu: those who view tapu principally in terms of the religious, and those who take the temporal view, which arises where health and survival are perceived as the main challenges to Maori.101 However, “common to both views is the acceptance of tapu ... as [a code] for social conduct and adaptation to the environment”.102 This is affirmed by Tohe who asserts that tapu “is fundamental to any description of Maori concepts or systems of regulation”.103 Indeed, tapu can be seen as underlying the crucial concepts of manaakitanga, rahui, muru, utu and kaitiakitanga.104

  1. Ibid, at 7.
  2. Ibid, at 6.
  3. Whangapirita et al, supra note 69, at 4.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Pierre Tohe, “Maori Jurisprudence: The Neglect of Tapu” (1998) 8 Auckland U L Rev 884, at 885.
  7. New Zealand Law Commission, supra note 19, at 36: “Tapu and noa are complementary opposites, which together constitute a whole. Noa has its own importance, as a counter and antidote to tapu; the value of everyday, ordinary, relaxed human activity.”

101 Ibid, at 37–38.

  1. Ibid, at 38.
  2. Tohe, supra note 99, at 891.


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Also significant is the fact that tapu is believed to be present in everything — for example, “in people, in places, in buildings, in things, words, and in all tikanga”.105

When exploring the concept of tapu it is important not to overlook its cou- pling with noa. In practice, they form two halves of a whole — “one cannot exist without the other”.106 As stated previously, tapu is commonly understood as sacred. However, once an object or entity reaches a heightened state of tapu it is perceived as dangerous.107 This is merely one situation necessitating that action be taken to reduce the status of the object to one of noa,108 thus restoring ea (balance).109 Mead explains ea as indicating “the successful closing of a sequence and the restoration of relationships or the securing of peaceful interrelationships”.110

3.4 Utu

Like the complementary concepts tapu and noa, utu is fundamentally concerned with the “balance of relationships between people, tribes and nature”.111 Frequently utu is simply understood as “revenge”, but again such a definition is simplistic and does not do justice to its myriad dimensions. Even commentators have had difficulty encapsulating the essence of the principle — some refer to it as “the principle of reciprocity”,112 others as “the principle of equivalence”,113 and others still as being primarily concerned with the maintenance of relationships.114 In the context of environmental use and management, this third definition is the most pertinent. For example, were one hapu or iwi to overuse a resource, actions (which would constitute the utu) would be undertaken to restore ea.

  1. Marsden, supra note 87, at 24.
  2. Whangapirita et al, supra note 69, at 13.
  3. Mead, supra note 81, at 31.
  4. Whangapirita et al, supra note 69, at 13. This document provides an excellent explanation of noa: “Noa is the opposite of tapu. The term reflects the status of people, places or objects free from the restrictions of tapu. Noa is that which is ordinary, everyday, and safe to be in contact with. Indeed, noa is a much more healthier condition than tapu.”
  5. Mead, supra note 81, at 31.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Tohe, supra note 99, at 888.
  8. Mead, supra note 81, at 31.
  9. Ibid.



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3.5 Rahui

A rahui is a Maori custom used to manage the use of natural resources.115 A rahui serves to indicate that a resource has been made tapu.116 Traditionally rahui could be imposed for a number of reasons: for example, to ban entry into a place recently made tapu as a result of a death, to ensure the future abundance of food sources by preventing overuse,117 or for other conservation purposes.118 The consequences for those who breached a rahui could be severe and had the potential to not only affect the individual responsible, but their entire hapu, who could then be subjected to muru.119 In some instances, the ramifications were even more severe — resulting in the death or injury of the guilty party through either “natural or supernatural means”.120 Like mauri, rahui is an institution which principally comes from the notion of kaitiakitanga,121 and is still utilised by Maori communities today.

3.6 Kaitiakitanga

The expression kaitiakitanga was coined relatively recently to denote the ethic of guardianship and describe the custodial role which Maori have always assumed with respect to the natural environment.122 Blundell captures its very essence when she says that “kaitiakitanga describes the mantel [sic] of responsibility worn by tangata whenua to promote the care and protection of natural taonga

— the waters, coasts, oceans, flora and fauna, forests, mountains, the earth and the sky”.123 As previously indicated, kaitiakitanga can be conceived as being grounded in the concept of tapu, as kaitiakitanga serves to “the tapu or sanctity of the land”.124

  1. Whangapirita et al, supra note 69, at 13.
  2. New Zealand Law Commission, supra note 19, at 40. 117 Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid. Maori Dictionary, available at <http://www.maoridictionar y ryKeywords=muru & search.x=0 & search.y=0 & search=search & n=1 & idiom= & phrase= & pro verb= & loan=> (accessed 30 December 2009). Muru is, in the context of this paper, used to denote the process of “tak[ing] ritual compensation — an effective form of social control, restorative justice and redistribution of wealth among relatives”.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Blundell, supra note 76, at 49.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Tohe, supra note 99, at 891.



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3.7 Conclusion

An examination of various elements comprising tikanga Maori reveals it to pro- vide a very strong basis for environmental protection and thus sustainability. Such an overview also reveals that significant common ground exists between tikanga Maori and those ethics crystallised in the Earth Charter. For example, whilst Principle 1 of the Earth Charter calls for humanity to “respect Earth and life in all its diversity”125 and to “recognize that all beings are interdependent and every form of life has value regardless of its worth to human beings”,126 Maori culture, with its holistic worldview and its affirmation of the value of all life through principles such as whakapapa, whanaungatanga, and the belief that each component of the natural world is instilled with mauri, has recognised this for generations. Likewise, the Earth Charter declares that “we must decide to live with a sense of universal responsibility, identifying ourselves with the whole Earth community as well as our local community”127 and affirms a “human solidarity and kinship with all life”.128 Again, the Maori belief that everything that exists in the natural world forms part of a “genealogical web”129 through the operation of whakapapa embodies the very essence of this aspiration. One may conclude therefore that tikanga Maori, by its very nature, has much to offer the sustainability discourse.


4.1 Tikanga Maori and the Land Ethic

It has been said that “the ‘indigenous’ perspective or worldview is one of em- beddedness and holistic integration and sharing in which the environment is embedded within the identity and the existence of humans”.130 The truth of this statement reverberates through the values and practices that comprise tikanga Maori. Indeed, when one reflects on values such as whanaungatanga and whakapapa, Maori cosmology and the self-description of Maori as tangata whenua, the integral role the environment plays within Maori society and culture becomes readily apparent. In light of this, it is interesting to consider

125 Earth Charter, Principle 1. 126 Earth Charter, Principle 1(a). 127 Ibid, Preamble.

  1. Ibid.
  2. Ulrich Klein, “Belief-Views on Nature — Western Environmental Ethics and Maori World Views” (2000) 4 NZJEL 81, at 105.
  3. Westra, supra note 43, at 7. Quoting K Kempton, “Bridge over troubled waters: Canadian law on aboriginal treaty water rights”, unpublished paper (2005).



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Aldo Leopold’s work, and question whether traditional Maori interactions with and treatment of the natural environment constitute a living, working embodiment of his “land ethic”.

Aldo Leopold is frequently lauded as the “father of environmental ethics”.131 Over his lifetime, Leopold delved into various disciplines, including “forestry, wildlife management, conservation biology, sustainable agriculture, restoration ecology, private land management, environmental history, literature, education, esthetics, and ethics”.132 His lasting contribution, however, was his application of ecology to ethics and the development of “a new paradigm or worldview”133 through the extension of “ethical concern to the environment”.134

Community lies at the very heart of the land ethic. Indeed, for Leopold, the recognition that one is a mere “member of a community of interdependent parts” forms the cornerstone of all ethics.135 Our rampant anthropocentrism has dictated that this “community” has typically been understood as denoting human groupings. The land ethic, however, extends the boundaries of community to include “soil, water, plants, animals, and people collectively”.136 By so doing, Leopold sought to transform “the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members and also respect for the community as such.”137

Leopold goes further still, suggesting that environmental degradation and exploitation results from humanity’s tendency to ignore our membership of this broader community of life and instead exploit it as our possession and birthright.138 Leopold suggests that our behaviour and attitudes will change only once we conceive ourselves as part of the land community, at which point “we may begin to use it with love and respect”.139

As part of this broader community — the land community — one must

  1. Gunn, supra note 65, at 8.
  2. University of Wisconsin Digital Collections, The Aldo Leopold Archives, available at

<> (accessed 18 June 2009).

  1. Gunn, supra note 65, at 8.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Aldo Leopold, “The Land Ethic”, in A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There

(New York, Oxford University Press, 1989) 188–226, at 203.

  1. Ron Engel, “Our Covenant with Earth: The Contribution of Soil Ethics to Our Planetary Future”, at 4, available at < > (accessed 14 June 2009).
  2. Leopold, supra note 135, at 204.
  3. Richard L Knight, “Aldo Leopold, the Land Ethic, and Ecosystem Management” (July 1996) 60(3) Journal of Wildlife Management 471, at 472. Quoting Aldo Leopold (1966).
  4. Ibid. Quoting Aldo Leopold (1966).



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question the obligations that we are under as humans. Leopold argues that without the presence of a conscience, obligations are meaningless.140 The land ethic therefore advocates not only an expansion of our understanding of community, but a reimagining of our conscience. It requires an extension of “the social conscience from people to land”.141 The land ethic also desires each individual to assume a personal responsibility for the land’s health, which Leopold defines as “the capacity of the land for self-renewal”.142

The land ethic should also be noted for its recognition of the ecological integrity of all members of the land community and its affirmation that each member has the right to “continued existence in a natural state”.143 It rejects the idea that the economic value ascribed to land, resources and living organisms should determine whether or not protection and conservation is warranted, especially as “most members of the land community have no economic value”.144 Indeed, “lack of economic value is sometimes a character not only of species or groups, but of entire biotic communities: marshes, bogs, dunes, and ‘deserts’ are examples”.145 Though these communities may not be of any ostensible value, they are fundamental to the healthy functioning of the ecosystems of which they are a part.146

Ultimately, asserts the land ethic: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”147

An understanding of Maori cosmology is necessary before one is able to appre- ciate the Maori worldview, let alone assess the relationship between Leopold’s land ethic and tikanga Maori. This understanding is crucial due to the way in which the Maori creation story informs the holistic nature of Maori attitudes and understandings of the relationship that they, as the indigenous people of Aotearoa, have with the land.

  1. Leopold, supra note 135, at 209.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid, at 221.
  4. Ibid, at 204.
  5. Ibid, at 210.
  6. Ibid, at 212.
  7. Ibid, at 214.
  8. Engel, supra note 136, at 4.



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(a) Maori cosmology

The most popular telling of the Maori creation story comprises three stages: Te Kore, Te Po, and Te Ao Marama.148 The first of these stages — Te Kore — tells of an emptiness or void:149 a realm of potential being150 but for the time being occupied only by Io, the supreme God and Creator.151 The second phase — Te Po

— consists of Io’s essence fertilising Te Korekore (the void), thus “creat[ing] the world of potential being, the world of becoming and the world of being”.152 This saw the spontaneous creation of Hawaiki (“the night realms”)153 and the gods Ranginui and Papatuanuku.154 Ranginui (the sky father and male principle) and Papatuanuku (the earth mother and female principle) came together, lying “in an embrace so the world was still shrouded in a darkness that inhibited growth, progress and an increase in knowledge”.155 This close and lasting embrace resulted in the birth of a number of children, all of whom were gods,156 each representing a “particular natural phenomenon”.157 Ranginui and Papatuanuku’s disgruntled children existed in the darkness between their parents.158 When it was finally agreed that their parents should be separated, it was Tane, the god of forests and their inhabitants,159 who accomplished the separation “by placing his shoulder against Papa and his feet against Rangi”.160 In doing so, “Rangi was thrust high above Papatuanuku so that there would be room for people to move around and light could enter the world”.161 This separation ushered in the third phase — Te Ao Marama — in which light flooded the darkness.162 However, the separation also sparked anger and violence amongst Tane and his brethren.163 The resulting warfare was survived by only Tane and Tawhiri (the

  1. Ministry of Justice, He Hinatore ki te ao Maori: A glimpse into the Maori world (Ministry of Justice, Wellington, March 2001) 12.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ulrich Klein, supra note 129, at 105.
  4. Ibid.

152 Ibid, at 105–106.

  1. Ibid, at 106.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ministry of Justice, supra note 148, at 12.
  4. Ibid, at 12–13. The six most well-known children were Tane (“revered ancestor of the forest”), Tawhirimatea (“revered ancestor of the elements”), Tumatauenga (“revered ancestor of war”), Tangaroa (“revered ancestor of the sea”), Rongomatane (“revered ancestor of peace, kumara, and cultivated plants”), and Haumiatiketike (“revered ancestor of fernroot and uncultivated foods”).
  5. Klein, supra note 129, at 106.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ministry of Justice, supra note 148, at 13.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Klein, supra note 129, at 106.



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god of war).164 Following this, Tane created the first human, whom he moulded from Papatuanuku’s sacred clay and brought to life by breathing through her nostrils.165 This woman, Hineahuone, and her daughter Hinetitama were the first members of the human race.166

( b) Holistic world view — the interconnectedness of all life

A recounting of Maori cosmology (the basis of te ao Maori) both illuminates the profound relationship that the Maori people have with their land and clarifies their holistic attitude towards the world around them.167 According to their mythology, humanity is literally from and of the land. The Ministry of Justice has taken this further, stating that “Maori see themselves as not only ‘of the land’, but ‘as the land’”.168 This provides a whole new understanding of the Maori identification as tangata whenua, especially when one considers the myriad dimensions of the word “whenua”, which means both land and placenta.169

This connection between humanity and the land is amplified by whakapapa, which Klein describes as the “genealogical links between the cosmos, gods, nature and humankind”.170 Like most indigenous peoples, Maori enjoy a unique relationship with the natural world, of which they consider themselves a part.171 Accordingly, Maori do not consider themselves to be in a position of power and dominion, but rather believe that “the people, the land, the sea, the forest and all living creatures, are all members of the same family”.172 This is due in part to the fact that plants, trees, birds and humans were all created directly by the god Tane, and are consequently all related to one another.173 Other members of the land community were created by other gods: for example, “fish and reptiles were created by Tangaroa, god of waters, and cultivated foods by Rongo”.174

164 Ibid. [Tumatauenga is the god of war. ed.] 165 Ministry of Justice, supra note 148, at 14.

  1. Klein, supra note 129, at 106.
  2. Ibid, at 106–107. “The creation story develops a holistic world-view. There is no break or distinction in the cosmology. All things have their own genealogy or whakapapa and are ultimately linked with the gods Rangi and Papa. Human beings are included in this genealogy and are only one part of the ‘great genealogical web’. Consequently humankind is seen as an intrinsic element of nature and not as separate from nature or even superior to it.”
  3. Ministry of Justice, supra note 148, at 44.
  4. New Zealand Law Commission, supra note 19, at 47. 170 Klein, supra note 129, at 105.
    1. Maui Solomon, “Intellectual Property Rights and Indigenous Peoples’ Rights and Obligations”, available at <> (accessed 10 June 2009).
    2. Ibid.
    3. Gunn, supra note 65, at 10.
    4. Ibid.



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That different elements of the natural world were created by different divinities, however, does not preclude the identification of all living things as kin.175 This unity in creation grounds te ao Maori and indeed tikanga Maori in very strong environmental ethics. As kin, Maori have responsibilities towards both their human and non-human brethren, obligating humanity “to avoid unnecessary environmental harm, and where possible to do good, to help our kin to thrive”.176 The importance of ea (balance) in the Maori world may also dictate that actions that have had negative environmental effects in the past be righted regardless of who caused the harm.177

It is important to note that Maori cosmology has been interpreted differently. For example, Hon-Key Yoon has interpreted the creation stories as promoting a rather antagonistic relationship between humanity and the land.178 However, it is more important to focus on how the Maori creation story is interpreted by tangata whenua and what implications it has for their perceptions of and behaviour towards the natural world. This is far more significant and valid than focusing on how an outsider — who will inevitably never be entirely conversant with Maori culture, their holistic worldview, and the intricate ways in which the pieces all interrelate — could interpret it. At the same time, this negative interpretation highlights a further danger of removing and applying Maori cultural (and often spiritual) values out of context. Out in the world, there is the possibility that the philosophy underpinning tikanga Maori could be twisted and misrepresented by those who do so wilfully or out of ignorance.

Teasing out the cosmology and the regard in which Maori hold the land reveals that their worldview is very much akin to the land community envisaged by Leopold’s land ethic. Both tikanga Maori and the land ethic consider humanity to form a part of the land or “land community”, and moreover view that, as members of this community, they have a number of responsibilities and obligations vis-à-vis the environment. The Ministry of Justice states that for Maori, “land was not viewed as a commodity, rather it was perceived as a source of identity, belonging and continuity to be shared between the dead, the living and the unborn”.179

It is also interesting to note that Leopold’s land ethic and tikanga Maori can be construed as supporting what Bosselmann terms “ecological citizenship”. Like Leopold’s extension of community and ethical concern to include each member of the broader land community and tikanga Maori’s conception of

  1. Ibid.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid. “We also ought to put right the results of past harms, even if we did not personally cause them, just as we have duties to help our human relatives who may have been harmed, regardless of who caused the harm (Paterson 1994).”
  4. Klein, supra note 129, at 107.
  5. Ministry of Justice, supra note 148, at 43.



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tangata whenua as intrinsically connected to the land through genealogy, Bosselmann asserts that the defining element of ecological citizenship is its “recognition of non-human beings as ‘fellow citizens’”.180 Flowing from this citizenship are a number of fiduciary duties — for example, the obligation to speak and act for members of the ecological community “not represented in the political decision-making process”.181 Bosselmann also argues that ecological citizenship implies that rights of use and access come complete with limitations and, moreover, that various principles of the Earth Charter182 affirm both the notion of ecological citizenship and this coupling of rights and duties.183

4.2 Kaitiakitanga and stewardship

In New Zealand, “kaitiakitanga” has found its way into domestic legislation through s 7184 of the Resource Management Act 1991 (“RMA”). This is New Zealand’s key environmental statute, and promotes the overriding purpose of sustainable management.185 The inclusion of kaitiakitanga and its statutory definition, which provides that kaitiakitanga is “the exercise of guardianship by the tangata whenua of an area in accordance with tikanga Maori in relation to natural and physical resources; and includes the ethic of stewardship”,186 has, however, been the source of considerable controversy. Firstly, this inclusion has been criticised on the grounds that any attempt to “define Maori concepts within a foreign regime and in the English language is always difficult”.187 This is due to there being no English term that fully captures the dimensions and scope of kaitiakitanga188 and the fact that a variety of understandings exists across different iwi.189 Secondly, some have hailed kaitiakitanga as a uniquely Maori concept. Thus the RMA is criticised for removing the concept from its cultural context, and also for its perceived secularisation and universalisation of a spiritual value.190 Thirdly, the very definition proposed by the RMA has been condemned for the analogy it draws between kaitiakitanga and the ethics of stewardship and guardianship. As Hayes states: “[T]he role of the kaitiaki is considerably more significant than simply that of a guardian or steward. It is

  1. Bosselmann, supra note 37, at 204.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Earth Charter, Principles 1(a), 2(a) & 6(a). 183 Bosselmann, supra note 37, at 205.
    1. RMA, s 7.
    2. Ibid, s 5.

186 Ibid, s 2(1).

  1. Selwyn Hayes, “Defining Kaitiakitanga and the Resource Management Act 1991” (1998) 8 Auckland U L Rev 893, at 893.
  2. Klein, supra note 129, at 104.
  3. Hayes, supra note 187, at 893.
  4. Gunn, supra note 65, at 11.



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a vital component in the spiritual and cultural relationship of tangata whenua with their land.”191 One must question, however, whether this is a valid criticism. Whilst the relationship that Pakeha192 have with the land may not involve the same affinity or innate connection, the ethic of stewardship cannot be denied its spiritual dimension. These comments warrant further investigation of the perceived nexus between kaitiakitanga and stewardship (if any).

A University of Waikato report has stated that:193

kaitiaki and the recently introduced term kaitiakitanga refer to the responsibility that certain entities, not exclusively people, have to protect and guard the mauri of particular people, groups, objects, resources, traditions, practices and places. A practical philosophy, the kaitiaki role is a process that is locally defined and owned. The kaitiaki role is not a process of ownership but an individual and collective role to safeguard nga taonga tuku iho (those treasures that have been passed down) for the present and future generations.

This responsibility that tangata whenua owe to future generations (whakati- puranga) is oft repeated by commentators. This sentiment is iterated by Hayes, for instance, who explains that “an intrinsic part of this concept is the recognition that each generation has inherited responsibility to protect and care for the natural world”.194 According to Hayes, however, this obligation not only requires one to “care for the natural world, but also for each successive generation, by ensuring that a viable livelihood is passed on”.195 The intergenerational element common to both stewardship and kaitiakitanga is important to note.

How then is a steward defined and explained in the Western tradition? Gunn defines a steward or guardian as “someone who is appointed to take care of something by someone who has the authority ... to do so”.196 In the Maori tradition, this is usually a god — although this delegation of responsibility may be made through “layers of intermediaries”.197 In the Western tradition, it is God who has allocated man the role of steward. These notions also tie into the idea of trusteeship, which is an important element in the Western conception of stewardship. To elaborate further, trusteeship derives from the belief that the earth, complete with its natural bounty, is a gift from God.198 As demonstrated,

  1. Hayes, supra note 187, at 898.
  2. Pakeha is used to describe non-Maori, though it is more commonly used to specifically describe Europeans.
  3. Whangapirita et al, supra note 69, at 12.
  4. Hayes, supra note 187, at 894.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Gunn, supra note 65, at 11.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Patrick Dobel, “The Judeo-Christian stewardship attitude to nature”, in Louis P Pojman (ed), Environmental Ethics: Readings in Theory and Application (New York, Wadsworth,



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this is common to both te ao Maori and the Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Judaism and Islam). From a Maori perspective, humans may only act as kaitiaki if “God or gods exist ... since the concept depends on someone having the mana to appoint them”.199 Likewise, the analogy between the Judeo-Christian stewardship ethic and trusteeship is founded on the belief that the world has been given to man by God and is to be held on trust for both future generations and ultimately God.200 Accountability also flows from this trusteeship, as man is ultimately held to account for the way in which he has treated God’s world.

An examination of the perceived role and responsibilities of the steward and kaitiaki also yields interesting results. The kaitiaki serves as “both benefactor and beneficiary, in the sense that they protect the resource from harm while still reaping the benefits of the resource”.201 Put another way, Maori, the tangata whenua, conceive of themselves “as holding a special relationship to Mother Earth and her resources; as an integral part of the natural order; recipients of her bounty rather than controllers and exploiters of their environment”.202 The mandate to use a resource, but to do so sustainably — namely, without exploiting the resource and destroying its ability to provide for the needs of future generations — is common to both. This is exemplified in the Judeo- Christian tradition, which perceives the world to be God’s gift.203 As such, “its heritage is something of enduring value designed to benefit all future generations. Those who receive such a gift and benefit from it are duty-bound to conserve the resources and pass them on for future generations to enjoy.”204

Engel considers stewardship to consist of three separate elements: firstly, “long term responsible care for the common goods of nature”;205 secondly, “sustainable ecological and economic use of these goods”;206 and finally, a “just sharing of these goods — and these responsibilities — among the popula- tion at large”.207 The preceding commentary reveals that the beliefs, values and practices that inform tikanga Maori and its kaitiakitanga ethic enable all

1998) 26–30, at 28: “The world is given to all. Its heritage is something of enduring value designed to benefit all future generations. Those who receive such a gift and benefit from it are duty-bound to conserve the resources and pass them on for future generations to enjoy. An ‘earth of abundance’ (Judg 18:10) provides for humanity’s needs and survival (Gen 1:26–28, 9:2–5).”

  1. Gunn, supra note 65, at 11.
  2. Dobel, supra note 198, at 28: “One fact is of outstanding moral relevance: the earth does not belong to humanity; it belongs to God.” See also footnote 198 above.
  3. Hayes, supra note 187, at 894.
  4. Marsden, supra note 87, at 12.
  5. Dobel, supra note 198, at 28.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Engel, supra note 136, at 5.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.



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three of those boxes to be checked. Firstly, Maori cosmology conceives of the land as connecting generations — it is a link not only to one’s ancestors, but also to the future.208 Future generations are thus kept in mind when using the natural environment. Secondly, the importance placed on balance in the Maori worldview requires that resources are used sustainably — overuse of a resource, for example, may result in a rahui being placed over the resource, thus allowing the resource to rest and replenish. Thirdly, the traditional focus on the communal in Maori culture can be used to illustrate the way in which goods, and likewise responsibilities, are shared amongst communities. The clearest example is the collective ownership of land prior to contact with the colonising forces of the British Empire, who forced their system of land tenure — that is, that land ownership vested in individuals rather than collectives — upon Maori. This emphasis on the community, the iwi rather than the individual, reflects the idea of a just sharing of tribal land and its resources. One can thus draw a connection between Maoridom and stewardship’s three dimensions of stewardship, as identified by Engel.

The striking similarities between stewardship and kaitiakitanga must be noted; as should the analogies one can draw between these ethics and the Earth Charter. Principle 2, for example, recognises that rights come coupled with duties: “Accept that with the right to own, manage and use natural resources comes the duty to prevent environmental harm and to protect the rights of people.”209 Principle 4 is also significant for its articulation of intergenerational equity: “Secure Earth’s bounty and beauty for present and future generations.

a. Recognize that the freedom of action of each generation is qualified by the needs of future generations. b. Transmit to future generations values, traditions, and institutions that support the long-term flourishing of Earth’s human and ecological communities.”210


Given the wisdom of tikanga Maori and other bodies of indigenous knowledge, it is important to give indigenous communities the opportunity to be involved in the use and management of the natural environment and to participate in decision-making that affects both them and the environments that sustain them. The empowerment, active participation and involvement of indigenous communities are thus rightly among the central tenets of soft law documents that promote the nexus between indigenous knowledge and sustainability.

  1. Ministry of Justice, supra note 148, at 43. 209 Earth Charter, Principle 2(a).

210 Ibid, Principle 4.



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These ambitions must be achieved in order for the potential value of sustainable indigenous systems and ethics to be fully realised. However, it is also necessary to deepen public understanding of indigenous cultures, so that they too may echo the sentiments expressed by the Brundtland Report, the Rio Declaration, Agenda 21, and the Earth Charter — namely, that the world’s indigenous communities represent “repositories of vast accumulations of traditional knowl- edge and experience that links humanity with its ancient origins”.211

5.1 Empowerment

Agenda 21 seeks to empower indigenous communities through promoting cooperation between governments, intergovernmental organisations and indigenous peoples to establish “a process to empower indigenous people and their communities”.212 The document then specifies a number of measures by which such processes might be achieved. These include a “recognition of their values, traditional knowledge and resource management practices with a view to promoting environmentally sound and sustainable development”,213 recognising “that traditional and direct dependence on renewable resources and ecosystems, including sustainable harvesting, continues to be essential to the cultural, economic and physical well-being of indigenous people and their communities”,214 and enhancing “capacity-building for indigenous communities, based on the adaptation and exchange of traditional experience, knowledge and resource-management practices, to ensure their sustainable development”.215

The right to self-determination is arguably the best means of empowering indigenous communities. Laura Westra describes self-determination as essen- tially requiring “governing institutions where peoples ‘may live and develop freely on a continuous basis’”.216 The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples both recognises and affirms this right: “Indigenous peoples have the right to self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.”217 Article 4 elaborates on what is entailed in this right: “Indigenous peoples, in exercising their right to self-determination, have

  1. Peter Jull, “The Politics of Sustainable Development: Reconciliation in Indigenous Hinterlands”, in Svein Jentoft et al (eds), Indigenous Peoples: Resource Management and Global Rights (The Netherlands, Eburon Academic Publishers, 2003) 22.
  2. Agenda 21, Chapter 26.3(a). 213 Ibid, Chapter 26.3(a)(iii).

214 Ibid, Chapter 26.3(a)(iv). 215 Ibid, Chapter 26.3(a)(vii).

  1. Westra, supra note 43, at 12. Quoting S James Anaya, Indigenous Peoples in International Law (New York, Oxford University Press, 2004) at 105.
  2. United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples 2007, Article 3.



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the right to autonomy or self-government in matters relating to their internal and local affairs, as well as ways and means for financing their autonomous functions.”218 Agenda 21 expresses similar sentiments, asserting that “some indigenous people and their communities may require, in accordance with national legislation, greater control over their lands, self-management of their resources, participation in development decisions affecting them, including, where appropriate, participation in the establishment or management of protected areas”.219

In New Zealand, the Maori Land Court (Te Kooti Whenua Maori) could be regarded as a step towards the empowerment of Maori. This Court operates as per s 2(2) of the Te Ture Whenua Maori Act 1993, which provides: “it is the intention of Parliament that powers, duties and discretions conferred by this Act shall be exercised, as far as possible, in a manner that facilitates and promotes the retention, use, development and control of Maori land as taonga tuku iho by Maori owners, their whanau, their hapu, and their descendants”.220 It is important to note at this point that of the 26.4 million hectares of land that make up New Zealand, only 1.3 million is Maori freehold land.221

5.2 Active Participation

Agenda 21 also requires governments and intergovernmental organisations to cooperate with indigenous communities to establish “arrangements to strengthen the active participation of indigenous people and their communities in the national formulation of policies, laws and programmes relating to resource management and other development processes that may affect them, and their initiation of proposals for such policies and programmes”.222 Principle 22 of the Rio Declaration similarly provides that “States should recognise and duly support their identity, culture and interests and enable their effective participation in the achievement of sustainable development”.223 Likewise, Principle 3 of the Earth Charter affirms the need to “build democratic societies that are just, participatory, sustainable and peaceful”.224 A desire to be involved and actively participate in decision-making is expressed by indigenous communities around the world. With respect to climate change, indigenous communities have repeatedly been excluded from international debates —

  1. Ibid, Article 4.
  2. Agenda 21, Chapter 26.4.
  3. Te Ture Whenua Maori Act 1993, s 2(2).
  4. “About the Maori Land Court”, available at < aboutmlc.htm?search=true> (accessed 2 July 2009).
  5. Agenda 21, Chapter 26.3(b).
  6. Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, Principle 22. 224 Earth Charter, Principle 3.



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for example, the United Nations conference held in Bali in 2007. Indigenous communities are particularly endangered by the effects of climate change on account of “the particular vulnerability of their territories and their reliance upon resource-based livelihoods”225 and are already feeling early impacts.226 It is therefore essential that indigenous communities participate in discussions, both because they are amongst the first to be affected by environmental degradation and because, due to their relationship and knowledge of their traditional environment, they may be “particularly well placed to observe environmental changes caused by this phenomenon”.227 Thus the participation and involvement of indigenous peoples would not only benefit their communities, but national and perhaps even global populations.

5.3 Involvement

Agenda 21 comments too on the need for indigenous communities to be involved “at the national and local levels in resource management and con- servation strategies and other relevant programmes established to support and review sustainable development strategies, such as those suggested in other programme areas of Agenda 21”.228 These calls are echoed all around the world. In Aotearoa, for instance, they are reflected in the appeals received by the regional body, Environment Waikato, calling for their policies to be amended so as to enable the more effective participation of local iwi in decision-making.229 It is suggested that this could be achieved by allowing more time for submissions and addressing the lack of resources, which makes it difficult for tangata whenua to contribute timely and scholarly submissions.230 The University of Waikato’s report also found that although Environment Waikato has a number of measures in place, “a greater understanding of the needs of tangata whenua constituents is required”.231 It is believed that such measures will have a positive effect on the policy and practical decisions coming out of this body and therefore result in better management of the environment. At a national level, New Zealand’s Local Government Act promotes the “increased participation of Maori in Local Government decision-making processes”.232

  1. Douglas Nakashima, “An Indigenous Knowledge Forum on Climate Change Impacts” (May 2008) 2(2) Pachamama 4, at 4.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid, at 5.
  4. Agenda 21, Chapter 26.3(c).
  5. Whangapirita et al, supra note 69, at 7–8.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid, at 9.
  8. Local Government Act 2002; Whangapirita et al, supra note 69, at 7.



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5.4 Education

In order to truly tap into the reservoirs of indigenous knowledge, it is further- more necessary to foster understanding of indigenous systems. With under- standing may come a greater acceptance and likewise a better ability to apply customary practices and the environmental philosophies in which they are frequently grounded.

In New Zealand, the place and moreover importance of the Treaty of Waitangi,233 the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi,234 and tikanga Maori have received some formal recognition. Chilwell J has even gone so far as to assert that “Maori spiritual values cannot be trampled on”.235 The RMA also goes some way to achieving the integration of tikanga Maori principles and customs into the mainstream resource management systems of New Zealand, primarily doing so through ss 6 and 7. However, interesting questions arise as to the seriousness with which such values are taken in practice and whether the inclusion of such concepts merely constitutes lip service to New Zealand’s obligations under the Treaty of Waitangi 1840. An interesting case study in this respect is the taniwha debacle, which in 2002–3 resulted in Transit New Zealand calling a halt on work on 100 metres of the Waikato Expressway near Meremere.236 In the traditional Maori worldview, natural and supernatural beings can serve as kaitiaki of natural resources. This was the case here, as Tainui legend holds “taniwha [to be] ... guardians of the Waikato River [and, according to their mythology, lie] ... at every bend of the river”.237 The sighting

  1. The Treaty of Waitangi, signed on the 6th of February 1840, is frequently described as New Zealand’s founding document. It was an agreement between the British and Maori, which formally allowed the settlement of Europeans in Aotearoa and allowed the introduction of British law to the New Zealand colony. Due to the discrepancies between the Maori and English versions of the Treaty, together with the fact that there were no less than five copies of the Treaty circulating around New Zealand at the time of the signing, it has been the source of much misunderstanding and conflict ever since.
  2. State-Owned Enterprises Act 1986, s 9. The concept of the “principles of the Treaty of Waitangi” made its first appearance in s 9 of the State-Owned Enterprises Act 1986. It was left for the judiciary to interpret this phrase. The most notable judgment on the subject was New Zealand Maori Council v Attorney-General [1987] 1 NZLR 641, which asserted that s 9 constituted “a firm declaration by Parliament that nothing in that Act shall permit the Crown to act inconsistently with the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi and overrides the rest of the Act”. When this case appealed up to the Privy Council, it was declared that the relationship between Maori and Pakeha that the “Treaty envisages should be founded on reasonableness, mutual cooperation and trust” (New Zealand Maori Council v Attorney General [1994] 1 NZLR 513, at 517 (PC)). These are the principles.
  3. Jacinta Ruru, “Treaty of Waitangi principles 20 years on” [2007] NZLJ 87. 236 Meremere is located on State Highway 1, between Auckland and Hamilton.

237 Daniel Adams, “Maori Spirit Halts Highway”, in Waikato Times (Hamilton, New Zealand, 4 November 2002).



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of a taniwha therefore would signal a warning to the local tangata whenua and prompt a reassessment of activities in that area. However, when a taniwha was sighted in the Waikato River during these road works, most people238 tended to scoff at the claim and viewed the “sighting” primarily as an engineered means of extracting funds from Transit. Whilst in the end, $20,000 was spent reworking the design239 so that the highway encroached on the taniwha’s lair to the least extent possible,240 this episode leaves one feeling distinctly uncomfortable. To a certain extent, it is necessary to be alive to the possibility that such things could be a hoax. However, it is alarming that this was the general Pakeha viewpoint and that an occurrence which could have been of huge cultural and environmental significance to Maori was generally disregarded. In order to address such scepticism and improve the respect in which tikanga Maori is held, a campaign of public education is mandatory. To a certain extent, statutory inclusions of phrases “kaitiakitanga” will remain meaningless to the majority of New Zealanders if such a campaign is not undertaken.

5.5 Incorporation

Incorporation of indigenous knowledge will only be meaningful once indig- enous communities have been empowered and are able to actively participate and be involved in decision-making and the practical management of the land and its resources. Similarly, the success of such incorporation will only be localised unless there is public support for indigenous values. Such support must have its roots in both an appreciation and respect for the ecological value of such customs.

In New Zealand a number of statutes make reference to customary Maori values and principles — these include the RMA241 and the Te Ture Whenua Maori Act 1993.242 Whilst these references are important and demonstrate some appreciation of the value of tikanga Maori, these statutes frequently lack

  1. “Hunting for the Taniwha — and Maori”, in Sunday Star-Times “Focus” (New Zealand, 2 February 2003): Prime Minister Helen Clark tried “to straddle the gulf, acknowledging Pakeha suspicion and Maori spirituality. Most people thought the taniwha ‘was a bit daft’, she told the Sunday Star-Times. On the other hand, ‘you wouldn’t put a motorway right through Stonehenge, nor would you put a motorway through a very significant prehistoric site without good reason’”.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Auckland Ghosts, available at <> (accessed 18 June 2009).

241 RMA, ss 6(e), 7(a) & 8.

242 Te Ture Whenua Maori Act 1993. Within this Act, the statute which provides for the operation of the Native Land Court, “tikanga Maori” is defined in the interpretation section (s 2) as “Maori customary values and principles”. It is also interesting to note the simplistic interpretations of concepts such as “whangai” and “tipuna” within this same section.



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specificity and few attempt definition.243 In Wright’s opinion, the legislative definitions that do exist are unhelpful, primarily due to “culture, customs and values ... [being] more illustrative than definitive”.244 In other words, they indicate the nature of tikanga Maori, but fail to “specify the values and practices that it can encompass. Whether spiritual aspects of tikanga Maori are included will depend on the nature of the situation in which it is to be applied, and on who is required to interpret it”.245 Attempts to tackle more specific principles are also rife with difficulty, as demonstrated by criticism of the RMA’s definition of “kaitiakitanga”. Within New Zealand, attempts to incorporate indigenous concepts into domestic legislation also tend to be problematic because those applying them are usually non-Maori.246 As a result, these ancient values and customs will be reinterpreted,247 often with no reference to or understanding of the contexts which inform these principles.

It is difficult to say how these problems can be addressed, but at least three solutions come to mind. Firstly, more acceptable and more accurate definitions may result from greater consultation with Maori. Secondly, the problems which result from current attempts at incorporation emphasise the need not only for a campaign of public education, but also the need to educate the legislature and judiciary.248 Indeed, this last need is arguably even greater. If the judges interpreting and applying the RMA, for example, have no conception of the meaning and operation of principles such as kaitiakitanga, tapu and mauri, these values will be easily overlooked and subordinated to concerns they do understand (for instance, the economic). Thirdly, there is a need for Maori advisers, with whom decision-makers can consult. Better still would be a greater number of Maori to be part of the judiciary, legislature and other decision- making bodies.249 This can also be applied to the international arena, where indigenous bodies should exist and actively participate in both decision-making and the dialogue surrounding sustainability. Greater indigenous representation would also foster a greater understanding of the wisdom of their ancient cultures.

  1. Wright, supra note 66, at 276.
  2. Ibid, at 277.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Solomon, supra note 26, at para 45.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid, at para 64.
  7. Ibid, at para 45.



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Affirmations of the wisdom of indigenous knowledge in the pursuit of sustain- ability have gained momentum in recent years. This is true to such an extent that numerous international agreements — both of the soft and the hard law variety — now voice the need to protect, value and utilise the wisdom of indig- enous cultures and do so in unequivocal terms. Whilst there are a number of reservations about indigenous sustainability, the potential good that could come of these vast reservoirs of knowledge necessitates ongoing investigations into their ecological value. Such examinations ought to be conducted carefully and objectively. An examination of the customary practices of Maori, the indigenous people of New Zealand, reveals them to provide a very strong environmental ethic. This conclusion is further supported by the positive way in which tikanga Maori relates to existing concepts of environmental ethics — in this case, the land ethic advocated by Aldo Leopold and the stewardship ethic commonly associated with the Judeo-Christian tradition. That these frameworks were found to be remarkably complementary prompts a consideration of how these values can be used to greater effect in the New Zealand context. To reiterate international documents such as Agenda 21 and the Earth Charter, the empowerment of indigenous communities, together with according them greater opportunities to be involved with and actively participate in decision- making are three important steps in the right direction: that is, towards harmonious and sustainable living. However, campaigns of public education are also necessary. Without an understanding of how indigenous values and systems of environmental use and management operate, it is possible that indigenous knowledge will remain marginalised and its full potential unrealised. Furthermore, attempts to incorporate such values into domestic or inter- national legislation may receive only limited support. Finally, it is important for documents and statutes that include references to indigenous knowledge to do so in a culturally sensitive and informed manner.

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