Māori and Environmental Law

Māori world view

The traditional Māori world view is notably different from the European. The very title tangata whenua, meaning ‘people of the land’, highlights the pre-eminent importance of the environment to Māori identity. The linkages between the natural world and Māori are explained through genealogy, tribal narratives and mythology. These stories describe various parts of the living and non-living worlds as being ancestors of people living today. Collectively, these relationships are known as whakapapa, and they represent how Māori place themselves within the world, and how they understand and interact with everything around them.

Rotorua Waka Carving (Credit: Raewyn Peart)

The inextricable link between Māori and the use and management of New Zealand’s natural resources is demonstrated by the following passage:

Our natural environment – whenua, waters, coasts, oceans, flora and fauna – and how we engage with it, is crucial to our identity, our sense of unique culture and our ongoing ability to keep our tikanga and mahinga kai practices alive. It includes our commemoration of the places our tūpuna moved through in Te Waipounamu, and the particular mahinga kai resources and practices we used to maintain our ahi kā anchoring our whakapapa to the landscape. Wherever we are in the world, these things give us our tūrangawaewae. They form our home and give us a place to return and mihi to and provide us with what we need to be sustained as Ngāi Tahu. 1329

Māori creation story

A narrative of the Māori creation story is an appropriate starting point for understanding the Māori concept of kinship between the natural environment and humankind. There are variations of the creation story originating from the East Coast, the South Island and Whanganui districts. In the Māori tradition at the void was the first state of being. The void evolved into various stages and states of darkness, through into the world of light. The supreme creator Io-Matuā- Kore. Ranginui is the personification of Sky Father and Papa-tua-nuku, the Earth Mother. According to tradition, they were locked together in an enduring embrace. Their embrace at the dawn of the world gives birth to the first sons of the Māori whakapapa. Thus creation is encapsulated by the phrase ‘iti kore, kite pō, kite aomārama, out of the nothingness, into the night, into the world of light’.

Tāne (spiritual guardian or atua of forests and birds) and his brothers Tangaroa (sea and fish), Wahirimatea (wind and weather), Tumatauenga (people and war), Haumia (uncultivated food), and Tongomatana (cultivated food), now have the freedom to explore their new world. Tāne becomes the creator of the forest, creating all the various creatures and plant life. He also creates a female to be his companion by breathing mauri into her nostrils. The story illustrates an essential aspect of the Māori world view; that all living things are related by genealogy.

Important concepts


Summary of Meaning


  • Mauri is a power that originates from the ancestors. The concept features in the creation story when Ta - ne brings Hine to life by breathing mauri into her nostrils.
  • It is a life power, essence and unifying force that exists in all living and non-living things.
  • Mauri is passed down through the genealogical links, linking all living things with an inseparable bond.
  • All living things are connected through mauri, so that the health or well-being of one member, affects the health and well-being of all other members.

Women and whenua

  • The land gives birth to life just as women do; therefore the earth is synonymous with Papa-tua-nuku, the earth mother.
  • The word for land in Ma-ori is whenua, which is the same as the word for placenta.
  • This belief is further illustrated by the cultural practice of burying the placenta in the ground when a baby is born. It is believed that if the placenta is buried, the child will continue to grow and develop with the nourishment of Papa-tua-nuku, and will maintain his or her connection to a tribal location.


  • There is no direct English translation that adequately describes mana, but some words that are commonly used include authority, status, integrity, prestige and power.
  • Mana is something that is descended from atua, which is commonly translated as ‘god’.
  • As Māori are linked by genealogy to these gods, they are better described as ancestors of paramount importance who have a continuing influence.
  • Mana is something that can be inherited or gained by descent, or it can be earned by great acts and personal achievement.


  • Manawhenua is a geographically specific form of mana.
  • It is closely linked to rangitiratanga, the right to exercise authority.
  • It is important to note that authority is not held over the land itself, but enables decisions to be made about its use.
  • Manawhenua in one locality does not correspond to manawhenua in another. The association is one with a defined area and its inhabitants.
  • The bonds are further reinforced by a history of whakapapa, to the extent that the land itself is considered an ancestor.
  • Another way of describing this relationship is turangawaewae,
  • Meaning people standing in their land.


  • Kaitiakitanga is derived from the word kaitiaki, meaning guardian.
  • In the spiritual world, atua take on the responsibility of kaitiaki and in doing so may assume the form of an animal, tree or other living thing.
  • In the physical world, it is people who must perform the role of kaitiaki.
  • Only those people who hold manawhenua have sufficient control over human activities in their area to perform their role as kaitiaki.

Rāhui and Tapu

  • Tapu is similar to sacred and is a form of spiritual restriction.
  • Rāhui is a kind of temporary ban, or restriction, imposed on natural resources to protect it from humans, or to protect humans from it.
  • A breach of either carries severe consequences.

The Treaty of Waitangi

The Treaty of Waitangi is a central theme in New Zealand’s environmental legislation, for example:

Section 4, Conservation Act 1987

This Act shall so be interpreted and administered as to give effect to the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi.

Section 8, Resource Management Act 1991

In achieving the purpose of this Act, all persons exercising functions and powers under it, in relation to managing the use, development, and protection of natural and physical resources, shall take into account the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi (Te Tiriti o Waitangi).

Section 12, Exclusive Economic Zone and Continental Shelf (Environmental Effects) Act 2011

In order to recognise and respect the Crown's responsibility to give effect to the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi for the purposes of this Act,

(a) section 18 (which relates to the function of the Māori Advisory Committee) provides for the Māori Advisory Committee to advise the Environmental Protection Authority so that decisions made under this Act may be informed by a Māori perspective; and

(b) section 32 requires the Minister to establish and use a process that gives iwi adequate time and opportunity to comment on the subject matter of proposed regulations; and

(c) sections 33 and 59, respectively, require the Minister and the EPA to take into account the effects of activities on existing interests; and

(d) section 45 requires the Environmental Protection Authority to notify iwi authorities, customary marine title groups, and protected customary rights groups directly of consent applications that may affect them.

The Treaty of Waitangi is a living document to be interpreted in a contemporary setting. New principles are constantly emerging and existing ones are modified. However, the key principles of the Treaty of Waitangi were outlined by the Court of Appeal in New Zealand Māori Council v Attorney-General [1987] 1 NZLR 641: 1339

  • The acquisition of sovereignty in exchange for the protection of rangatiratanga: “The Crown sought legitimacy from the indigenous people for its acquisition of sovereignty and in return it gave certain guarantees” per Justice Richardson.
  • Partnership: Each party to the Treaty owes the other a duty to act reasonably and in good faith.
  • Freedom of the Crown to govern: The Treaty does not restrict the right of a duly elected government to follow its chosen policy.
  • Duty of active protection: The Crown has a duty to actively protect Māori interests in the use of their lands and waters.
  • Duty to remedy past breaches: The Crown has a duty to grant some form of redress where the Waitangi Tribunal finds merit in a claim.
  • Retention of rangatiratanga: “The Maori Chiefs looked to the Crown for protection from other foreign powers, for peace and for law and order. They reposed their trust for these things in the Crown believing that they retained their own rangatiratanga and taonga.” Per Justice Bisson.
  • Duty to Consult: The responsibility to act in good faith and reasonably puts the onus on the Crown to make an informed decision, in many cases that will require consultation.


  1. Treasuring Our Biodiversity, 2013, Chapter 11. Environmental Defence Society

  2. Ngai Tahu 2025

  3. http://www.waitangi-tribunal.govt.nz/doclibrary/public/Appendix(99).pdf

Last updated at 10:36AM on January 11, 2018