|Waikaremoana: the jewel in Te Uruwera|
In the process western cultures have colonised, marginalised, and in many cases, wiped out, indigenous people throughout the world. In doing so, the wisdom of indigenous cultures has been rejected, disparaged, and unheard for these many long centuries.
Now, however, there are signs that we in the western-styled cultures are beginning to see the error of our ways:
- We are starting to understand that we are part of nature, not separate.
- We are starting to recognise that indigenous cultures have a wealth of knowledge and wisdom that we could learn from.
- We are starting to acknowledge our past colonisation and exploitation of indigenous people and beginning to redress those wrongs.
In 2010 Bolivia introduced a pioneering Constitution that recognised the rights of Mother Earth. The first nation on Earth to do this, Bolivia’s Constitution provided for six principles by which Mother Earth was to be recognised and respected:
- Harmony. Humans and nature co-exist within a dynamic balance of cycles and processes.
- Collective Good. In terms of human activities, it is society as a whole that is upheld, provided it is within the rights of Mother Earth.
- Regeneration. Mother Earth must be able to regenerate. This principle recognises that living systems are limited in their ability to regenerate, and that we humans are limited in our ability to undo our actions.
- Respect. Collectively and individually we have a responsibility to respect the rights of Mother Earth for current and future guardians.
- Commercialisation. Living systems are not to be commercialised, nor are they to become private property.
- Multiculturalism. All cultures who seek harmony within nature are to be recognised, respected, and protected.
Since the 1980s the governments of New Zealand (acting as the Crown) have been engaged in processes of restoration, recognition and reparation with the indigenous people (Māori) of the country.
In 2014 the New Zealand Government passed the Te Uruwera Act which declared Te Uruwera to be a legal identity with the rights, powers, duties and liabilities of a person. Te Uruwera is a large tract of native forests, lakes, waterways, mountains, flora and flora in the North Island of New Zealand. The Māori tribal grouping with centuries of connection with this area – the Tūhoe – recognise the area as their birthplace and homeland, and the place that they hold respect and guardianship for.
For Tūhoe this area is known as Te Manawa o te Ika a Māui (the Heart of the Fish of Māui1). For Māori, as it is for many indigenous cultures, the Earth is not a separate entity. The Earth is intimately connected with the people – the people are intimately connected with the Earth.
The legislation recognising Te Uruwera as being of equal identity to a person notes that the area is “abundant with mystery, adventure and remote beauty,” and that it is “a place of spiritual value, with it’s own mana and mauri.”2 Because of it’s legislated identity, the Act suggests that Te Uruwera will “inspire people to commit to it’s care.”
Lying some 170 km southwest from Te Uruwera the Whanganui flows north to south, from the mountains to the sea, through spectacular forests and countryside. The river is considered an ancestor by the tribes along its length.
However, European colonisation disregarded this ancestral connection and exploited the river in many ways. Claiming their rightful place as guardians of the river and it’s life force the Whanganui tribes have petitioned parliament, taken cases to court, and appeared before Royal Commission for well over seventy years. Finally, in 2014, a deed of settlement was reached between the tribes and the government. The legislation for this deed recognised the Whanganui as
“an indivisible and living whole, from the mountains to the sea, incorporating it’s tributaries and all it’s physical and metaphysical elements.”This settlement not only recognised the life force of the river but also the intrinsic connection between people and nature.
Earth the Mother
These examples recognise the Earth as a living entity having equal value to that of humans. Furthermore, they recognise that the distinction between humans and the earth (as western thinking has supposed) is erroneous. The Earth and people are part of the same complex, interwoven, network.
It could be claimed that these examples are confirmation of an environmentalist perspective giving rights to the Earth. However, it should be noted that the legislation (particularly those in New Zealand) has been brought about as redress to the indigenous cultures restoring their rights as people of the land. In restoring those rights the legislation also takes note of indigenous cosmologies that understand the ongoing connection of humans with the Earth. If we, from western-styled cultures, can learn from Māori and other indigenous cultures then we will approach the Earth in a much more sustainable, healthy, respectful, and honouring way.
We do not need to give rights to the Earth, we just need to find our rightful place within the Earth’s eco-system – a place that indigenous cultures have known since time began. It is a place where we belong.
The final words belong to a saying from the people of the Whanganui:
“Ko au to awa, ko te awa ko au.”Notes:
(I am the river, and the river is me.)
1. Te Ika a Māui (the Fish of Māui) is one of the Māori names for the North Island of New Zealand.
2. Mana is Māori for power, prestige, authority. Mauri is suggestive of spirit, life force, or inherent essence.