Natural Scenery

Is ‘legal personhood’ a tool or a distraction for Māori relationships with nature?

  • Over the past decade, several Māori iwi (tribes) in Aotearoa New Zealand have made history and fetched international recognition by gaining “legal personhood” status for natural features, including a forest (Te Urewera), a river (Te Awa Tupua), a mountain (Taranaki) and recently, whales and dolphins.
  • The move has been mirrored by Indigenous groups and others around the world seeking to boost protections for critical landscapes and natural entities.
  • Recognition of legal personhood is seen by some as a reconciliation tool, which can help to undo some of the harm caused by the colonial alienation from the natural world.
  • Yet questions remain for Māori, and many other commentators, about the extent to which such a legal instrument can enact meaningful change within a capitalist system, and whether or not such efforts serve to distract from, or contribute to, deeper transformation.

RAGLAN, Aotearoa New Zealand — The wide, steep-cliffed Whanganui River ferries spring water and snowmelt from Mount Tongariro to the west coast of Aotearoa New Zealand’s North Island. Tracing its length by waka (Māori canoe), the steady surge of deep-green, mist-trimmed freshwater invokes a powerful presence.

For local iwi (Māori tribes), that presence is especially significant: Whanganui River is considered a literal, sentient ancestor who can be spoken and listened to. Damage to the watershed, such as pollution from agriculture and forestry and the construction of hydropower dams, thus has cultural and spiritual implications as well as environmental ones.

In 2017, the Whanganui watershed — termed Te Awa Tupua — made history as the first river to gain the rights of legal personhood, granting it formal recognition as a “spiritual and physical entity” that can be represented in a court of law.

Since then, there has been a flurry of attempts around the world — many of them successful — to grant rivers, mountains, forests and animals the status of a “legal person.”

Some Indigenous people welcome the phenomenon as a step toward a legal system that’s more aligned with, and hopefully more likely to effectively represent, their values and worldviews. Others, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, see it as an odd sort of strategy for shifting how people relate to the natural world. But, says University of Canterbury legal scholar Rachael Evans, who affiliates with the Ngāti Tama and Ngāti Pamoana iwi, perhaps even stranger is the worldview we’ve used to manage natural resources in colonial systems to date.

Whānganui River
The wide, steep-cliffed Whanganui River ferries spring water and snowmelt from Mount Tongariro to the west coast of Aotearoa New Zealand’s North Island. Image by Jason Pratt via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

“Under New Zealand law, a river is stratified into the minerals underneath, then the soil, then the riverbed, then the banks, the fish and the creatures in the river, the plant life and the water — and it’s possible for different entities to manage each one of those parts,” Evans says. “It’s completely alien, really, and that’s what capitalism has reduced nature down to: parts that can be exploited and commodified.”

For Māori, such a compartmentalized approach is particularly dissonant. And according to Evans, partly why we’re facing a climate crisis: because people have been able to alienate themselves from the land.

“Being part of nature is not an abstract concept for Māori,” Evans says.

When Māori whakapapa (cite their genealogy), they identify their mountain and their river as part of that, she explains. The term they use to describe themselves — tangata whenua, or people of the land — is not just tidy phrasing: It’s a metaphor for the way that, when they arrived from Polynesia, they interwove their genealogies, stories and histories through the landscape.

That didn’t mean their impact was always sustainable: After a couple of centuries in Aotearoa, Māori had hunted several large endemic bird species to extinction and overexploited seal populations too. But by the time of European contact in the 1700s, they had developed a number of spiritually informed conservation traditions, such as the practice of rāhui, whereby temporary or permanent restrictions or bans are placed on particular species and areas to allow for regeneration.

University of Canterbury legal scholar Rachael Evans, who affiliates with the Ngāti Tama and Ngāti Pamoana iwi.
University of Canterbury legal scholar Rachael Evans, who affiliates with the Ngāti Tama and Ngāti Pamoana iwi. Image courtesy of Rachael Evans.

The mana of the mountain

In September 2023, Ngāti Tama and seven other iwi secured legal personhood status for Taranaki, an imposing snowcapped volcano on the east coast of the country’s North Island, Te Ika-a-Māui.

“For Māori, the mountain has always had mana [prestige, presence, spiritual power]. And I don’t think that’s a completely alien concept for a lot of pākehā [New Zealanders of European descent] either — when you’re around Taranaki, it’s like, of course he has mana!” Evans says. “So we’re hoping that [personhood status] means we are better able to acknowledge the mana of the mountain.”

While that might seem somewhat abstract to some, the possibilities it enables for environmental defenders are rather practical. Often, when people take individuals, institutions and companies to court for actions that threaten the intrinsic value of a part of nature, their claims are rejected on the grounds that the threat doesn’t sufficiently affect them personally. So, if these parts of nature can be represented in court as rights-holders in themselves, that value can be easier to defend.

For Taranaki, the iwi hope the move will bolster support for actions that enhance its mana — such as the reintroduction of the endangered North Island kōkako (Callaeas wilsoni), an endemic blue-wattled bird that has been locally extinct.

But the use of legal personhood status isn’t done solely for utilitarian or practical purposes, and its impacts are not simply environmental.

“In Aotearoa New Zealand, [legal personhood] wasn’t created as an environmental protection tool per se,” Evans explans: “It wasn’t the green lobby pushing it through; it wasn’t conservationists — it’s an Indigenous reconciliation tool.”

Another iwi, Tūhoe, unlocked new possibilities when it made history in 2014 by gaining personhood status for the misty rainforest of Te Urewera on the western flank of the same island as Taranaki. That move, which made Aotearoa New Zealand the first country in the world to grant legal personality to a natural feature, surprised many legal scholars by undoing the national park status that the region had been governed under since the 1960s, and which Tūhoe had always opposed because it shut them out of decision-making and interaction with their ancestral land.

Tūhoe has now set itself up to govern the forest on its own terms. “The management plan says very explicitly that Western property rights no longer apply to Te Urewera,” Evans says, “which I think is quite incredible.”

Taranaki mountain.
In September 2023, Ngāti Tama and seven other iwi secured legal personhood status for Taranaki, an imposing snowcapped volcano on the east coast of the country’s North Island, Te Ika-a-Māui. Image by jgraham via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

‘Instruments in the house of the colonizer’: Revolution or distraction?

Since Te Urewera gained personhood status in 2014, followed by the Whanganui River (Te Awa Tupua) in 2017 and Taranaki in 2023, groups around the world — many of them Indigenous peoples — have pursued personhood status for a wide range of natural features and entities, from lakes to trees to whales and dolphins.

Yet as the trend becomes more mainstream, there’s a risk that trying to align a traditional and spiritual worldview with a Western settler legal instrument may not live up to its proponents’ hopes — and that it could even serve to entrench unhelpful paradigms.

“We need to remember that all it is, is a legal instrument in someone else’s house — in the house of the colonizer,” says Jessica Hutchings, an Indigenous food systems and Māori soil sovereignty expert who affiliates with the Ngāi Tahu and Ngāti Huirapa iwi. “So it can only go so far to be able to enact all of the diverse aspirations that we bring as Indigenous peoples to Te Awa Tupua, Te Urewera and Taranaki maunga [mountain].”

Hutchings herself recently began exploring the recognition of personhood for Hineahuone, the Māori soil deity. “I was wondering what that would do in terms of how we might treat our soils differently,” she says. “But then it just felt really wrong.”

In a Māori worldview, humankind is the “youngest sibling,” the last element of nature to be born. “So we have very clear ancestral instructions around what is in our realm to tutu [mess around] with, and what’s not,” Hutchings says. From that perspective, positioning humanity above nature and then “elevating” some natural features to that level through personhood status feels presumptuous — as well as likely ineffective.

“We do an absolutely terrible job of looking after humans: Why would we think granting personhood status is going to elevate the mana of our deity Hineahuone?” Hutchings says. “It’s a distraction. We’re distracting ourselves and letting ourselves off the hook for all of the bad practices that we are complicit in.”

Hutchings advocates instead for — and facilitates through hands-on Hua Parakore (Māori organic growing) education — behavior change toward more reciprocal relationships with nature.

“We don’t have to get right on top of [nature], we just have to be alongside to co-create with her, and to give her all the space to express the power that she is,” she says. To do so, she says, humanity needs to consider a number of questions, such as: How do we have to manage ourselves as people in order to enact that reciprocal relationship? What are our duties and our responsibilities for soil and for seed? And how can we individually deliver on them?

Three dolphins swimming in Kaikōura, Aotearoa New Zealand. Image by Pablo Heimplatz via Unsplash.
The misty rainforest of Te Urewera on the western flank of the same island as Taranaki. Image by Monica Evans.
The misty rainforest of Te Urewera on the western flank of the same island as Taranaki. Image by Monica Evans.

From empire to entanglement

Hutchings is not alone in this quest for reorientation. In a recent essay titled “It’s Wrongheaded to Protect Nature with Human-Style Rights,” University of Waikato adjunct law professor and leading human rights commentator Anna Grear posited, “Perhaps we should not extend outwards from ourselves, so much as question humanity’s entitlement to act as a model. After all, it is a hubristic belief in our own singularity and exceptionalism that’s partly responsible for destroying the planet.”

Instead, Grear argued, the law “needs to develop a new framework in which the human is entangled and thrown in the midst of a lively materiality — rather than assumed to be the masterful, knowing centre, or the pivot around which everything else turns.”

Evans is more optimistic about the significance of the growing number of natural features receiving legal personhood status — if only as one small piece of a much broader and further-reaching transformation.

“I think we’re not very likely to see a full suite of legal personality mechanisms come through, but what I’m hoping we will see is an increase in tikanga principles [those based on societal lore within Māori culture] coming through environmental protection and climate legislation,” she says. “I hope that in the future, there might be more compulsion for people to consider the mana of the land, the mana of the water and kaitiakitanga [guardianship, protection] responsibilities.”

A sperm whale fluke in Kaikōura, Aotearoa New Zealand.
A sperm whale fluke in Kaikōura, Aotearoa New Zealand. Image by Boris Johnson via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

 


Banner image: Lupine flowers in sunshine in Piopiotahi/Milford Sound, Aotearoa New Zealand. Image by Aneta Hartmannová via Unsplash.

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