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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Lessons in politics learned from studying in New Zealand

<rtheast corner of New Zealand’s North Island, far from any major town, lies a vast swath of mountainous woodland known as Te Urewera.

In 2013, its residents, the Ngati Tuhoe tribe of indigenous Maori people, signed a unique agreement with the New Zealand Government.

In an unprecedented step, Te Urewera was granted legal personhood. The government ceded control of the land to a Board of Guardians, and legal actions to protect Te Urewera can be brought on behalf of the land itself.

I myself, during my time studying abroad in New Zealand last term, was unable to visit Te Urewera, but its situation is exemplary of two major, intertwined currents in New Zealand’s society: the prominence of the indigenous Maori, and deep respect for nature.

When the British reached New Zealand at the dawn of the 19th century, many Maori negotiated, resulting in the Treaty of Waitangi, guaranteeing Maori rights. As colonizers tend to do, however, the British quickly violated the agreement, leading to fierce fighting in parts of New Zealand as white settlers seized land.

The treaty would be ignored until the mid-20th century, when a Maori cultural revival led to its renewal, and the introduction of the Waitangi Tribunal to compensate Maori for unfairly confiscated land.

Roughly a billion dollars of reparations have been paid to Maori as a result of Waitangi settlements.

Today, the treaty of Waitangi is regarded as New Zealand’s most important document.

The Maori have seven reserved seats in the New Zealand parliament. Meanwhile, the Maori language is an official language of New Zealand, and most place names, organization names, and signs are bilingual.

Many inequalities remain; Maori make up roughly half of New Zealand’s prison population in spite of being only 15% of the total population.

However, I was consistently struck by how much of an effort to address the grievances of the past and ensure Maori rights has been made compared to the way the United States has treated and continues to treat its own indigenous peoples.

The Maori place a heavy emphasis on respecting nature, considering the natural world itself alive, a worldview that has broadly influenced New Zealand culture.

Since the Te Urewera agreement, the Whanganui river, one of New Zealand’s major waterways, has also been granted personhood. Meanwhile, nearly 30% of New Zealand’s land area is protected nature reserves.

When New Zealand’s parliament recently convened in a special session, led by dynamic leftist prime minister Jacinda Ardern, to discuss climate change, every party holding seats, from Ardern’s Labor and the Greens to the nationalists of New Zealand First and the conservative National Party, acknowledged that climate change exists, a global first.

Working together, they hashed out a comprehensive roadmap for a transition to a low-emissions economy, providing a remarkable contrast with the current state of American climate change discourse, and political discourse in general.

Every society has flaws, New Zealand’s included. As in the U.S., the legacies of imperialism run deep.

But in my time there, I saw over and over again how New Zealanders have acted to reckon with past mistakes and build towards a more inclusive, greener, better future. We could learn much from them in meeting our own challenges.

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