What is kaitiakitanga?

The connection between land management and impacts on the marine environment are critical to coastal Māori. Gathering kaimoana, both for sustenance and to provide for visitors, is an integral component of Māori life. When these resources are compromised by inappropriate development, a way of life is also compromised. “Kaitiakitanga” is now part of the vocabulary of environmental managers in New Zealand, but understanding of its full significance is usually limited. 

There are statutory definitions of kaitiakitanga.  However, unlike other terminology in environmental law, there is little case law or published best practice to guide practitioners in its application. The following description acknowledges the statutory definitions, but provides an understanding within a broader cultural context. 2606

Kaitiakitanga is already acknowledge in legislation and is defined as follows:

 … the exercise of guardianship by the tangata whenua of an area in accordance with tikanga Māori in relation to natural and physical resources, and include the ethic of stewardship (section 2 RMA)

… the exercise of guardianships; and, in relation to any fisheries resources, includes the ethic of stewardship based on the nature of the resources, as exercised by the appropriate tangata whenua in accordance with tikanga Māori (section 2, Fisheries Act 1992)

Concern has often been expressed however that present legal definitions do not fully express what kaitiakitanga is about, and that any attempt to define it in anything other than te reo Māori will always be insufficient.

The Aquaculture Steering Group offers the following ideas in order to generate discussion on the concept of kaitiakitanga and what it means for the aquaculture reform. Kaitiakitanga contains many elements that can be described as:

  • Mahi tapu – god given and handed down through our tipuna
  • Founded in whakapapa – the relationship between everything and everybody in the natural world – there is no distinction between people and their environment
  • Exercised on behalf of, and for the benefit of, all who are related through whakapapa
  • A set of inalienable responsibilities, duties and obligations that are not able to be delegated or abrogated
  • A web of obligations: to the taonga, to the atua and to ourselves and our uri. Kaitiaki have a responsibility to provide for everyone and ensure everyone benefits
  • Independent of ‘ownership’ in a European sense. As on land, kaitiaki responsibilities are independent of other who hold ‘ownership’ or use rights under the la. For example, although as kaitiaki, iwi/hapū may ‘own’ only a percentage of the total marine farming space in a region under existing law, they still hold kaitiaki responsibilities over the whole area in accordance with tikanga
  • Seamless and all encompassing – making no distinction between moana and whenua
  • Given effect at whanau and hapū level
  • Expressed in ways that are appropriate to the place and to the circumstances, according to tikanga
  • Wider and more complex that existing legal definitions
  • Given practical effect by exercising control over access to resources and sharing the benefits of the use of those resources
  • Enabled through rangatiratanga, which includes the authority that is needed to control access to and use of resources, and to determine how the benefits will be shared. This means that it can be expressed in part through the concepts of ‘ownership’, ‘property’, ‘title’ or ‘stewardship’ – however it is much wider than any of these.

Kaitiakitanga has been exercised since before the Treaty. Article II of the Treaty guaranteed that iwi/hapū would retain the authority they needed – that is rangatiratanga – to continue to exercise kaitiakitanga.

While the Crown gained the right to govern and to make laws (including for the purpose of resource conservation) under Article I of the Treaty, the Crown must heed the guarantees it made under Article II when designing and implementing its policies and laws.

There are a number of key messages in this description. Kaitiakitanga is integrated with the spiritual, cultural and social life of tangata whenua; is holistic across land and sea; includes people within the concept of environment; is locally defined and exercised; does not focus on ownership, but on authority and responsibility; and is concerned with both sustainability of the environment and the utilisation of its benefits. This concept of kaitiakitanga contains the purpose of the RMA (sustainable management of resources); and that of the Fisheries Act (sustainability and utilisation), but is broader than each of these concepts.

Traditionally, kaitiaki had a guardian and stewardship role for natural resources. Whilst individuals may have had specific roles, these were all exercised in terms of a collective responsibility determined through whakapapa and tikanga. The allocation and distribution of the benefits from those resources were further kaitiaki responsibilities. Tribal mana has, in most aspects of natural resources, been supplanted by legal ownership and statutory regulation. Adapting traditional kaitakitanga to today’s changed circumstances is a major challenge for tangata whenua.

In practice, natural resources are managed either directly by those having formal legal ownership, or indirectly through the exercise of statutory authority. Māori ownership of resources is more significant in the marine area than on land.

  1. Lucy Brake and Raewyn Peart (2015) Sustainable Seas: Managing the marine environment at 80. 

Last updated at 4:54PM on February 8, 2018