February 6 was Waitangi Day in New Zealand, commemorating the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840. The treaty sought to formalise the relationship between the colonising British and the native Maori people, making New Zealand part of the British Empire, establishing a British Governor there, and guaranteeing Maoris rights to their land. However, Maori beliefs about the ownership and use of land are very different from those that were prevalent in Britain in the nineteenth century. Their spirituality is strongly associated with the land, and they believe there is a deep kinship between humans and the natural world. They appoint individuals or groups as guardians to protect the land, while customary practices maintain a balance between the human communities and nature.
This relationship with the land and nature is found in many indigenous cultures. Humans, nature and spirits have a place in an ordered universe, and the environment is protected by religion and ritual as well as by traditional management practices. Together with an intimate knowledge of the environment, this enables indigenous cultures to co-exist with, rather than exploit, nature. The land also gives indigenous people a sense of belonging to a place, and connects them with their past, present and future – their past because it is the home of their ancestors, the present because it provides all of their material needs, and the future because it is a legacy that they hold in trust for their children and grandchildren.
The importance of the land is reflected in the statement by the World Council of Indigenous Peoples that “next to shooting indigenous peoples, the surest way to kill us is to separate us from our part of the Earth”.
Many of us in the Western world do not have such an intimate connection with the land. We may not live in the same place as our forebears, and our children may not remain where we are living now. We do not rely on the area where we live for our material needs since much of our food and other provisions are produced in, and imported from, faraway places. We do not feel a sense of kinship with the natural world but, instead, see it as a source of material assets with economic value.
However, the Western world is increasingly recognising the value of traditional land management practices, and is seeking to protect them through “community protocols” that formalise in written form the customary laws that have sustained biodiversity for generations.