Māori Elder wins environmental legal battle against polluters

Māori Elder wins environmental legal battle against polluters
Mike Smith, Courtesy Te Ao Māori News.

Environmental advocate Mike Smith, a respected Māori elder in Aotearoa (New Zealand), initiated legal action against seven leading greenhouse gas producers in the nation, demanding they acknowledge their contribution to environmental disruption and significantly reduce their emissions to achieve a net-zero target by 2050. In February 2024, the Supreme Court of New Zealand decreed that his legal challenge should be assessed in accordance with Indigenous traditional laws. This is significant, as “Mike Smith’s case has confirmed polluters like Fonterra could be held legally responsible for the climate devastation they’ve caused.”  This case largely highlights the enduring effects of systemic colonialism, settler colonialism, and the contemporary challenges of environmental justice.


A mandate, published by the nations Environmental Protection Agency, to publish emissions data under the Climate Response Act has illuminated the gravity of the environmental impact that the largest extractivist and polluting companies in the nation have had on New Zealand’s greenhouse emissions. Much alike many other nations, a small number of companies, particularly from the ‘fossil fuel’ and agribusiness sectors, are responsible for almost half of the country’s annual greenhouse emissions, amounting to 80 million tonnes. This starkly illustrates the disproportionate impact a few entities can have on national and global ecosystems. 


This details also illustrate, not only the legitimacy, but the urgency of Mr Smith’s lawsuit and the broader environmental challenges. An elder from the Ngāpuhi and Ngāti Tribes, and a spokesperson for climate change at the Iwi Chairs Forum - a forum for national tribal leaders - initiated the legal proceedings in 2019 against five fossil fuel corporations (BT Mining, Channel Infrastructure, Genesis Energy, NZ Steel, and Z Energy) and two agricultural businesses (Dairy Holdings and Fronterra). The case concerned detrimental and degrading impact of their pollution on his community. Smith emphasised the importance of incorporating tikanga, the traditional Māori customs, into judicial considerations, highlighting their growing recognition as foundational to New Zealand’s legal system by the Supreme Court, particularly in matters of environmental protection. Contending that under tikanga, he is acknowledged as kaitiaki, a guardian, representing the interests of the whenua (land), and wai (freshwater), and moana (sea). 


The lawsuit initiated by Mr Smith, brought light to the major human rights implications, such as those impacting the health, cultural heritage and livelihoods of the Māori communities, that major greenhouse gas emitters risk continuing to violate on this current trajectory. Fuel extractivist, as well as, agribusinesses stand as primary sources of climate change, representing 73% of worldwide emissions. In comparison, the dairy sector contributes to 3.4% of global emissions, which is almost twice the environmental impact of the entire aviation industry, primarily due to the emission of methane, a highly potent gas, accounting for 59% of its emissions. Specifically in New Zealand, the surge in methane emissions has been the principal factor in the 21% rise in greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 to 2020, with the increase in dairy cattle numbers and carbon dioxide emissions from road transport being the leading contributors.


With surges in methane, and the continued degradation of the local ecology, the cultural rights of the Māori are at stake. Deep spiritual and cultural connections to the land, water and air are threatened by the continued emissions from extractivist and agricultural businesses. Impacting indigenous cultural traditions and connections to their environment deeply damage the likelihood of ecological health and their ability to carry out the role of kaitiaki, the guardians of the natural world. The right to access their own livelihood is further damaged, with changing weather patterns and extreme events affecting agriculture and fishing, key sources of sustenance and income for many. 


Fortifying this, the Ngāpuhi and Ngāti Kahu Māori elder states


“Māori are particularly vulnerable to climate change, being disproportionately represented amongst the poor, who will be the hardest hit. Rising sea levels, coastal erosion, flooding and storm surges will irrevocably damage low lying coastal communities, traditional resources, including fisheries.”


Initially, Smith’s case was dismissed by a judge, which deemed climate degradation an issue more related to government regulation. This mirrors a historical pattern where Indigenous voices and concerns are sidelined in favour of a national colonial priority. This dismissal reflects the “architectures of enmity” a theoretical framework that describes the structural mechanisms that perpetuate adversarial relationships between Indigenous communities and settler societies, often mediated through environmental exploitation. Despite institutional barriers, Smith appealed this ruling to the New Zealand Supreme Court. 


The New Zealand Supreme Court’s decision in February 2024 to examine Smith’s lawsuit under Indigenous customary laws marked a significant departure from the rationalities of previous governance. This judicial recognition of tikanga (Māori customary practices) as a valid legal framework not only challenges the colonial legal paradigms but also reaffirms the role of Māori as kaitiaki of their environment. This is a critical acknowledgement in a country where Māori, despite making up a significant portion of the population, face disproportionate vulnerabilities to climate change impacts due to systematic inequalities. 


Corporate defendants, like Fronterra, have responded by emphasising their compliance with existing national laws. A stance that reflects a broader colonial attitude towards environmental regulations. This narrative, which prioritises legal minimums over substantive environmental and social responsibilities, reveals the deep-seated challenges in reconciling corporate interests with sustainable and equitable environmental governance. In this regard, from the respective of corporate social responsibility (CSR), this case underscores the necessity for transparency and accountability in corporate practices. Companies identified as major polluters are now compelled to reassess their environmental impact and engage more constructively with local communities, especially indigenous groups. This demands a shit towards sustainable practices, not just a compliance measure, but as a core component of their business model, reflecting a commitment to ethical practices and environmental stewardship. 


To address the multifaceted challenges highlighted by Mike Smith’s legal action against New Zealand’s major greenhouse gas emitters, a comprehensive and nuanced approach to policy reform is not only necessary, but vital. Central to these reforms should be the formal recognition and integration of tikanga Māori and other Indigenous legal frameworks into national environmental legislation. This integration should empower Indigenous practices and knowledge systems, granting them practical authority in the stewardship and management of natural resources. In a recent article published by impACT, discussing the recent judicial victory for Siekopai, we have discussed the importance of Indigenous stewardship over ancestral land in relation to the creation of sustainable eco-systems.


Furthermore, it is imperative to enact stricter emissions targets for major polluters. These targets should be informed by the latest climate science and aligned with international commitments, particularly those outlined by the Paris Agreement. Such regulations must include transparent reporting and verification mechanisms to ensure that companies are held accountable for their environmental impact. 


Additionally, the establishment of Environmental Justice Committees is another crucial step. These committees, compromising Indigenous representatives, environmental scientists and policy experts, would provide essential oversight and guidance on projects and policies affecting Indigenous lands and the ecology at large. This collaborative approach would ensure that diverse perspectives are considered in environmental decision-making processes. 


Moreover, co-manage frameworks for natural resources represent another pivotal policy recommendation. By involving Indigneous communities in the decision-making process, these frameworks would not only acknowledge Indigenous sovereignty but also leverage traditional ecological knowledge for sustainable resource management. In the case of the Siekopai, the group has won full authority over their ancestral lands to manage the ecology as they see fit. Exercising full authority over the land allows for the Siekopai to remove extractivist trespassers and those damaging the local environment.  


In addition, enhancing corporate accountability is vital. Legislation should extent corporate responsibility to encompass environmental impacts beyond direct emissions, including those associated with supply chains and lifecycles. Incentives for adopting sustainable practices and investing in renewable energy sources and agricultural practices would further encourage a shift towards a more sustainable national economy. 


Educational and public awareness campaigns are also essential for fostering a broader understanding of the importance of Indigenous knowledge in environmental stewardship and the broader societal benefits of sustainable practices. Additionally, providing legal aid and support for communities, especially Indigenous ones, to challenge environmental injustices is critical for upholding environmental and Indigenous Rights. 


Lastly, developing and implementing climate adaptation strategies that prioritise vulnerable communities, including Indigenous populations, will ensure resilience in the face of climate change. International collaboration and the exchange of best practices related to Indigenous rights protection and environmental sustainability can further enhance these efforts.


In sum, Mike Smith’s legal battle is emblematic of a broader struggle against the entrenched “architectures of enmity” that have historically marginalised Indigenous voices and exacerbated environmental degradation. This case extends beyond seeking judicial redress; it aims to fundamentally transform the discourse surrounding environmental responsibility, Indigenous sovereignty, and the enduring effects of colonialism in New Zealand and beyond. 


To truly address the complex interplay of environmental justice, Indigenous rights, and colonial legacies, implementing the outlined policy recommendations is crucial. These recommendations, which include integrating Indigenous legal frameworks into environmental legislation, enforcing stricter emissions targets, and enhancing corporate accountability, are essential steps towards realising a sustainable and equitable future. By adopting these policy attitudes, New Zealand can lead by example, demonstrating a commitment to reconciling with its Indigenous communities and setting a precedent for global environmental governance. 



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