Lessons Learned From Te Urewera and Te Awa Tupua’s Guardianship

A tale from a visiting researcher in Aotearoa New Zealand


This article was authored by 2017 Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation Scholar Stéphanie Roy

Thanks to my Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation Scholarship, I had the opportunity last spring to complete a two-month internship as a visiting researcher at Victoria University of Wellington in Aotearoa, New Zealand. This was an invaluable opportunity for someone with a vast interest in environmental issues, as New Zealand possesses such a rich natural heritage.



The purpose of this trip was to study guardianship – the protection mechanism put in place to protect the Te Urewera Forest and the Whanganui River (Te Awa Tupua) – two entities that were granted legal status in 2014 and 2017 respectively. This status recognizes rights in the same way as with humans, and to recognize their particular importance to the Maori people, who consider nature as an ancestor to which humans must act as guardians.

In order to implement this responsibility of humans toward nature, the legislation governing the protection of Te Urewera and Te Awa Tupua has appointed guardian committees to act on their behalf and to ensure its governance. This guardianship must ensure the unique relationship between local tributes and these natural entities, namely the Tuhoe Nation in the case of Te Urewera and the Whanghanui Iwi in the case of Te Awa Tupua, all while preserving their health and well-being.

To ensure that custodians fulfill their role, the legislation also imposes a list of fiduciary duties ranging from the duty to act and speak for and on behalf of Te Urewera and Te Awa Tupua, to promote their well-being, the management of their lands and administration of their funds. Guardians must do their work promoting the objectives of guardianship mentioned above and in law.

This protection mechanism is of particular interest to my research, as my thesis focuses on the imposition of fiduciary duties on governments to protect the environment. The goal is to impose a list of clear duties on governments so that the protection of the environment is no longer discretionary and instead becomes an obligation toward citizens and future generations. Such a fiduciary state would further recognize the responsibility humans have toward nature while underscoring their interdependence. These two models of guardianship are smaller scale case studies of what my work suggests putting in place on a large scale. So, I was very excited to discover the guardianship experience in New Zealand.

I was fortunate enough to work with Professor Catherine Iorns Magallanes, who allowed me to visit Te Urewera and meet members of the local community by way of lawyer Erin Matariki Carr, who works with the Tuhoe Nation to develop and maintain the relationship with Te Urewera. These meetings allowed me to better understand the Maori People’s interdependent relationship with the land and with nature in general, as well as their way of using the land while also caring for and preserving it. Visiting Te Urewera has allowed me to see with my own eyes all its richness and beauty.



From a more legal point of view, I understood that while it is important to focus on formulating clear fiduciary duties, it is even more important to question and clearly identify the objectives that these duties serve to achieve. Afterall, it is these objectives that really guide the duties of guardians.

In the end, Te Urewera and Te Awa Tupua may be examples of the rights of nature, but they are above all examples of human responsibility toward the environment. Granting rights to nature remains theoretical if one does not recognize the correlative responsibility of humans to protect it. New Zealand has succeeded in both cases. Let us hope that these will become guides in the field in the years to come.