Image: Lake Tarawera / Michal Klajban / Wikimedia Commons
You don’t have to look far to find evidence of New Zealand’s love affair with water. No matter where you are, an ocean, a stream, a river, or a lake is never too far away. We all have our favourite spots and secret summer hideaways. Water is a huge part of the New Zealand landscape for a variety of purposes, which is why the debate about Māori water rights is so fascinating. Water as a political debate is not a new concept, but in recent years, it is a debate that has floated to the surface of common conversation.
Basically, in New Zealand, common law tells us that water cannot be owned. Different landowners can own the river bed on which the water runs, but water as a naturally occurring resource does not belong to anyone. In the face of Māori who are fighting for recognition as authoritative figures over bodies of water, the Crown is attempting to argue this position. The contrasting argument put forward by Māori, and supported by the common law custom of Native Title, is that before 1840, Māori maintained a relationship with bodies of water that can be most closely described in English as ‘ownership’.
As mind-blowing as it seems, there are actually critics who maintain that these claims are just ‘opportunistic’ money-grabbing attempts by the Māori ‘elite’ wanting more power and more money. Such critics are of course, misinformed. Māori water relationships are acknowledged for many different reasons, some of the reasons only understandable within the Māori experiential reality.
Māori have always viewed water as a source of life, of food, and of textiles. We rely on rivers for transport, and for rituals that are central to the health of the people and culture. In a Māori system of genealogy or whakapapa, we will trace ourselves back to a river as an ancestor. Taniwha are said by some Māori to dwell in certain bodies of water, formidable guardian figures of extreme spiritual power.
Kaitiakitanga has become a significant concept in understanding Māori environmental rights. A kaitiaki is a guardian of sorts, a being charged with the responsibility of caring for and protecting a piece of land or a body of water etc. We have an obligation to care for the environment the way that it cares for us. Kaitiakitanga describes the Māori desire to be the direct caregivers to the environment around us, to preserve it for future generations.
Some examples of kaitiakitanga might be imposing a rahui (fishing ban) on an ocean area at certain times to make sure it can recover from overfishing, blocking access to especially spiritually significant areas of a river, or making sure that a body of water is not contaminated and that its mana – which we may describes as a sort of spiritual life force – is maintained.
Economic interests on the part of the Government mean that there are concerns that these rights will not be protected. Water rights claims come into being when communities feel that the powers of care are not being adequately served. For example, when it seems that selling shares in a river power company might jeopardise Māori autonomy over a river, or when adequate measures are not being taken to make sure a river continues to be a clean, healthy ecosystem for all life.
The debate for Māori water rights is fascinating because it shows how we are continuing to move forward in a post-colonial age. Environment ownership in a country as beautiful and treasured as ours so often comes into question. Māori want to exercise this right of ownership because of the relationship we have maintained with water for hundreds of years.
For all of us in this country, the water is special. We want to make sure that future generations have rivers to leap into on a hot summers afternoon, water that won’t make them sick, rivers full of life. Māori want sustainability, care and respect for the water, the thing without which there would be no life on this planet.
This is not a matter of ‘Māori privilege’, but of people who continue to love Aotearoa and want to make sure it sticks around a little longer.