Balancing biodiversity and cultural needs

The New Zealand government may need to revisit its obligations under international laws to protect biodiversity in the wake of a Waitangi Tribunal report on the Wai 262 claim.

The Wai 262 claim covers Māori rights to indigenous flora and fauna and cultural and intellectual property under mātauranga Māori – that is, the unique Māori way of viewing the world, encompassing both traditional knowledge and culture. The claim includes the rights of Māori to the customary take of culturally important plant and animal species, such as mutton birds, kereru (wood pigeon) and some flax species. In some cases, these are endangered species protected under international laws such as the Convention on Biological Diversity.

The Waitangi Tribunal has recommended that laws and policies should be reformed to enhance the relationship between the Crown and Māori. In the light of the Wai 262 claim, a University of Waikato environmental law expert is currently looking at international practice in dealing with indigenous claims to protected species to help find better ways to manage the relationship between Māori customary practices and conservation estate.

Professor Al Gillespie is an international authority on conservation, biodiversity and international law, and the author of eight books on the subject. He is the first New Zealander to be named Rapporteur for the World Heritage Convention, and has successfully advocated a fundamental change in the way the international community practises conservation – namely that communities, not just governments, must be at the heart of all initiatives.

Professor Gillespie says other countries with strong indigenous communities have pioneered ways to balance indigenous cultural needs with conservation, and he’ll be looking at what New Zealand can learn from overseas experience.

For example, under the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, indigenous peoples in North America are allowed to take a small number of whales for cultural purposes, while the International Whaling Commission has set aboriginal subsistence whaling catch limits for specific species in four countries: the United States, Denmark (Greenland), Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and Russia.

Professor Gillespie says similar arrangements in New Zealand could help preserve Māori culture and identity while also protecting the country’s unique biodiversity – and maintaining our international treaty obligations.