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October 2016 Issue
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Te Urewera lives

View of Lake Waikaremoana in Te Urewera - the first park in the world to be made a natural person. Photo: Ria Fitzpatrick

The land becomes a person – and everyone wins.

By Robin McNeill

The words ‘national park’ mean different things to different people in New Zealand. The National Parks Act tells us that they are there for the purpose of preserving land in perpetuity because of their intrinsic worth and for the benefit, use and enjoyment of the public. They are areas of New Zealand that contain scenery of such distinctive quality, ecological systems, or natural features so beautiful, unique, or scientifically important that their preservation is in the national interest.

The word ‘national’ tells us that national parks are for—and valued by—people from all over New Zealand, local and afar. More accurately, national parks are international parks, because of the worldwide interest and love that exists for them, and the worldwide desire to protect them.

On the other hand, because of a disgraceful land confiscation, the people of Tuhoe rightfully abhorred the ‘national park’ suffix to the former Te Urewera National Park because it was a continuing reminder of a major injustice. Not surprisingly, when Ngai Tuhoe sought redress under their Treaty of Waitangi settlement, it was untenable to them that the land could remain a national park. But how could the wider public interest and access be maintained, and how could international concern be allayed?

The solution was both elegant and breathtaking: Te Urewera would own herself. She would become a ‘natural person’. In essence, this is not far from the original Maori concept of land, where mountains and rivers are ancestors, from whom the tribal family descends. Trampers were assured that access would remain unfettered and Federated Mountain Clubs, after visiting Tuhoe leaders at Taneatua, were convinced that everyone had the very best intentions to do the right thing and enthusiastically supported the proposal. It came to be in 2014.

This is the first time anywhere in the world that land has become a natural person, but Te Urewera is in good hands: under the settlement, a board has been established to act for her and make decisions in her best interests. If not a direct relation of many trampers, she surely remains a close friend. And she may well become a friend, too, to other parts of the world where indigenous peoples, needing solutions to their problems, seek her guidance.

Robin McNeil is the former president of the Federated Mountain Clubs of New Zealand.