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New Zealand: the Māori people want greater control of the rivers of the South Island

At the end of 2021, the indigenous people of South Island in New Zealand took out a lawsuit against the government to stop the degradation of rivers and have more control over their management. This action is part of the long struggle by Māori communities to gain recognition of their rights and those of nature.

Toxic algae in New Zealand’s pastoral rivers (Source: The Guardian, Naomi Haussman)

On 5 August 2014, the New Zealand government signed a historic settlement with the representatives of the Māori people. It recognised the Whanganui river, on the west coast of North Island, as a living being, inextricably linked to the local people. The legal personification of the Whanganui is part of wider recognition given to the cultural rights of the indigenous people and their cosmology. The latter is based on the principle that humans are not separated from other elements of the living entity Te Awa Tupua (literally the indivisible and living being that englobes all the physical and metaphysical elements of the river). This postulate is expressed in particular in the dictum often used by the Iwi (tribe) Whanganui, “Ko au te Awa, ko te Awa ko au” (“I am the river, the river is me“).

Considered as an ancestor, the river is protected by two guardians, one chosen by the government and other by the local tribes, who care for its good health and speak in its name. This settlement was finalised in March 2017 by a law voted in the New Zealand Parliament that satisfies the claims made for more than a century by the indigenous peoples.

Today, the combat is led by the largest tribe in the south of the country, Ngāi Tahu. It intends to take the government to court: it accuses the government of failing to sufficiently protect the rivers. It is also asking for the authority to manage a large part of South Island.


Problems in the booming dairy industry


This new lawsuit is occurring in the framework of political, cultural and economic battles that are taking place all over the country between the partisans of intensive agriculture, environmentalists and the determination of the Māori people to gain recognition of their sovereignty over the natural resources they consider themselves to be the guardians. Finally, they bear the mark of a colonial past that has long separated these people from, and deprived them of, their land and rivers. The context in this island remains complex, as the rivers cross still fragile natural landscapes while farm activity is prospering.

Since the 1990s, the successive governments of New Zealand have backed the development of the dairy industry as a motor of exports and the economy. The targets are the huge Chinese market and that behind it of the rest of Asia. The number of cows in the country has doubled over the last 20 years to reach more than 4.5 million head, and a large number of farms formerly dedicated to meat production have been converted to milk production. It represents several billion dollars, i.e., 3% of the country’s GDP and 20% of all exports. This industrialisation of production has resulted in greater recourse to water and fertilisers rich in nitrogen to irrigate the meadows, leading to the deterioration of surface and groundwater quality.

Many of the rivers that cross the land of the Ngāi Tahu have been contaminated. The fish and eels that the tribe have fished for generations are threatened and toxic algae, caused by high nitrate levels, are proliferating. 95% of the rivers that cross grazing land are contaminated and this pollution obviously has an impact on human health. Research carried out recently by the University of Otago revealed that 800,000 New Zealanders drank milk with dangerous levels of contamination by nitrates.

A loss of identity


Rivers that are part of the Ngāi Tahu heritage (Source: Ngāi Tahu – the iwi)

The degradation of freshwater means much more than the loss of a source of food or a living and leisure environment. Part of the Māori identity is at stake here, with the intergenerational transmission of a common good called into question.

To remedy this, the Ngāi Tahu community decided at the end of 2021 to take out a lawsuit to claim the primacy of their “Rangatiratanga”, in other words their rights of governance over water resources and also their responsibility for their protection. This legal procedure immediately sparked a heated public debate on the issue of ownership of a common good, something the Māoris did not claim, although  the government had recently presented a series of reforms (see the previous article published on the climate and rivers) for the joint governance of water between the government authorities and local communities.

Although the debate hardened over issues of separatism and control over water resources by certain interests, the approach started by the Ngāi Tahu raised a fundamental question: how is it possible to implement the holistic management of water, which relies on a long-term vision and ancestral knowledge?

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