From the words of Doris Neubauer, “The indigenous population of a small island in New Zealand’s Bay of Plenty is fighting the national government for the right to protect the sea around it. Tehse Maori could change history and be a model for other costal communities around the world”.

Including the Philippines, this could be a learning note for our Marine Protected Areas (MPA). Here is the case scenario:

Motiti, a small island lying just 10 kilometres (six miles) off the coast of New Zealand’s North Island, is usually a tranquil spot. Inhabited by only 40 people, it lies close to the Astrolabe Reef, where scuba-divers congregate to marvel at the abundance and diversity of reef fishes and other marine life. On 5 October 2011, though, the island made headlines for a different reason: the 236-metre (775-foot) container ship MV Rena had run aground on the reef. It was the most serious environmental disaster in the Pacific nation’s history.

Oil and waste estimated at more than 230 tonnes contaminated the waters around the reef and another 350 tonnes of oil was scraped off the island’s beaches. More than 2,000 seabirds fell victim to the spill. But, as so often happens, something positive emerged from the disaster. In order to avoid further damage to the reef, a fishing and diving ban was imposed within a radius of two nautical miles. Four years later, the fishes and other sea creatures were back and abundant once more. In the absence of harmful human impacts, the local marine life was again flourishing. All’s well that ends well? Far from it. Emboldened by the recovery, in April 2016 the Astrolabe Reef – including the wreck of the Rena – was reopened to divers. At the same time, the New Zealand authorities refused to ban fishing within three nautical miles of the reef for the next two years. Maori living on Motiti, including the Motiti Rohe Moana Trust (MRMT), protested fiercely but to no avail.

‘Since then, every man and his dog have been fishing on those rocks,’ complains Umuhuri Matehaere of the MRMT. ‘The reef is now in the same state as it was before.’ Refusing to remain silent, he and the others in the trust engaged in an expensive legal battle. ‘We, the local communities, know our environment best,’ they argued. ‘We should be able to co-decide what should be protected and how.’

Taking responsibility for the environment is in the Mãori DNA. These indigenous locals call themselves tangata whenua, or ‘people of the land’, consider themselves managers of the environment and do all they can to preserve their mauri, or ‘life force’, for future generations. ‘While the Western approach is to take advantage of the “stock” of a particular species for the benefit of humans, for the Maori protecting the ocean means protecting our environment so that our cultural and spiritual relationship with the life force of the ocean can continue,’ explains marine biologist Te Atarangi (T.A.) Sayers, whose family has been linked to Motiti Island for 15 generations. He continues, ‘In contrast to the existing system, we ensure ecologically sustainable management.’ For him, long-term usability instead of exploitation is the motto. And the Environment Court of Tauranga, Bay of Plenty, under whose jurisdiction Motiti falls, agreed.

On 5 December 2016, a new legal declaration set a precedent: within the regulations of the Resource Management Act, protection zones could be established at a regional level and fishing-related activities could be restricted, with the aim of protecting biodiversity and preserving both the ecological and the cultural value of the habitat.

Such a pronouncement flew in the face of regulations such as the Fisheries Act promulgated by the New Zealand government, and indeed the government appealed against the ruling. But during the austral summer of 2017 the legality of the Environment Court’s decision was confirmed by the High Court. Justice Christian Whata ruled in principle that the Resource Management Act empowers regional councils to regulate fishing in order to preserve marine biodiversity, significant habitats and Mãori relationships with the ocean and taonga(treasured) species.

Such a pronouncement flew in the face of regulations such as the Fisheries Act promulgated by the New Zealand government, and indeed the government appealed against the ruling. But during the austral summer of 2017 the legality of the Environment Court’s decision was confirmed by the High Court. Justice Christian Whata ruled in principle that the Resource Management Act empowers regional councils to regulate fishing in order to preserve marine biodiversity, significant habitats and Mãori relationships with the ocean and taonga(treasured) species.

With the support of New Zealand’s largest conservation NGO, Forest & Bird, the Motiti Rohe Moana Trust prevailed and it was decided that regional councils throughout the country have the power to draw up policies, objectives and fishing regulations in order to prevent damage to the ecosystem and promote a non-commercial relationship with the sea. ‘This decision confirms that the duties of regional authorities extend to coastal and marine areas,’ explains Sayers. And it’s a decision that has been welcomed throughout the country, but particularly in Marlborough, South Island, where de mands for it have been expressed for some time; and in Omaha at the northern tip of North Island, where swimmers get caught up in abandoned fishing nets. The declaration opens the door for local communities like these, as well as for environmental advocacy groups such as Forest & Bird, to pursue conservation in New Zealand’s territorial waters.

‘It’s good to have clarity that the Resources Management Act charges local councils with managing the effects of fishing on the environment,’ continues Sayers. ‘But councils cannot make the rules that impact on the sustainability of fishing resources – this comes under the Fisheries Act. Now we know where the line is drawn, and on what grounds.’ The decision also clarifies that the Fisheries Act covers Maori interests in traditional fishing, whereas the Resources Management Act embraces wider cultural and spiritual connections with the sea.

This important decision may have ramifications far beyond the Motiti model and even beyond the shores of New Zealand; it could encourage other nations to rethink their strategies with regard to local coastal populations that face similar challenges. And it’s not the first time that New Zealand has set an example. In March 2017, in response to demands by the local Maori, the Whanganui River was given its own legal identity, becoming the first river in the world to be accorded such status. This means that anyone harming it, directly or indirectly, can be prosecuted. The concept is already being emulated, with similar efforts taking place in Ecuador, Bolivia and India. Forward-thinking scientists such as Daniel Hikuroa of the University of Auckland would like to take it a step further, advocating that the sea be recognised as a legal person.

In the meantime, protective measures need to be put in place that cater for the cultural and community, as well as the environmental, value of the ocean. ‘That is, the intrinsic, landscape, Maori, non-economic value,’ elaborates Sayers. ‘In each region, communities will have to consider cases on their individual merits. They need to realise the importance of the decisions they make and will have to pinpoint the values, connections and relationships that must be protected, restored and preserved.’

In the meantime, protective measures need to be put in place that cater for the cultural and community, as well as the environmental, value of the ocean. ‘That is, the intrinsic, landscape, Maori, non-economic value,’ elaborates Sayers. ‘In each region, communities will have to consider cases on their individual merits. They need to realise the importance of the decisions they make and will have to pinpoint the values, connections and relationships that must be protected, restored and preserved.’

Can the Philippines follow their motivation without any corruption?

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