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  • Allison Gable

Decolonization as Climate Justice: Deep-Sea Oil Drilling in Aotearoa New Zealand


Despite worldwide resistance to fossil fuel extraction, not only are companies and governments failing to shut down existing extraction projects as needed to avert the climate crisis, but new projects continue to open and operate. In Aotearoa, the indigenous name for New Zealand, the government committed to no new offshore oil and gas exploration permits in 2018 and declared a national climate emergency in 2020. However, existing extraction permits continue to be valid, and a new offshore drilling rig appeared off the coast of Taranaki earlier this year.

New Zealand is a settler colonial country, with a settler colonial government responsible for permitting fossil fuel extraction on Aotearoa. Māori, the indigenous people of Aotearoa, comprise about 17.4% of the national population. Their legal relationship to the colonial government, and how that government allows iwi—tribes—to exercise authority over their lands and waters, is based on the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi. Historically, significant disparities between the English and Māori language versions of the Treaty were used to take land and political power, including the right to self-determination, from Māori. However, during the Māori Renaissance in the 1970s, protest by groups like Nga Tamatoa forced the government to establish a tribunal investigating treaty violations. From there Aotearoa’s course began to shift: in the 1980s, as demand to respect Māori sovereignty and the Treaty grew, new legislation, like the Conservation Act in 1987 and the Resource Management Act in 1991, called for reparations by returning land to Māori and respecting their right to “control and manage their natural resources according to their own cultural values”.

In 2017, the New Zealand parliament broke the news for giving the Whanganui River legal personhood, recognizing it as “an indivisible and living being.” This decision was the result of a 150-year legal battle by the Whanganui Iwi, who view Te Awa Tupua (the river-and-its-environment as an inseparable whole) as an ancestor—tupuna—of their tribe. The law established an office, including two guardians from the iwi, an advisory group, and a strategy team, to speak up for the river’s rights and interests. However, existing property rights to the riverbed remained in place, meaning the guardians of the river have to go up against companies like those operating hydroelectric dams in order to protect the rights of Te Awa Tupua in court.

The Whanganui River now has the legal right to certain functions, such as flowing freely and conveying sediment, and has an established group to defend it in court if these functions are obstructed. However, the land around the river has not actually been returned to Māori, and the new protections in the Te Awa Tupua Act do not guarantee their successful enforcement. It’s far from a guarantee that the river will be protected from harm, and in fact, there are major issues with the Whanganui River’s health today - but it’s still a victory in recognizing Māori sovereignty over the land and resources of Aotearoa.

The reasoning behind the Te Awa Tupua Act emerges from the Māori worldview, Te Ao Māori. In this way of understanding the world, people are born into a web of complex relationships with other living humans, human ancestors, and non-human ancestors, like creatures and the environment. This principle of connectedness and ancestral genealogy is called whakapapa. Additionally, in Te Ao Māori, traditional authorities are kaitiaki (guardians) of their waters, lands, and physical and cultural environments. Kaitiakitanga, or guardianship, establishes responsibility for the wellbeing of these entities and people. The legal recognition of Te Awa Tupua and the establishment of a political body to speak for it reflects Te Ao Māori and the responsibilities that Māori hold to their non-human environment and culture.

In contrast to this guardianship, ancestry, and indivisibility of ecosystem, in Western culture “man” is seen as separate from “nature”, and “nature” is viewed as something with resources to be exploited for human gain. It is under this capitalist, colonial worldview that current fossil fuel extraction projects and the non-corporate entities that permit them, like governments, operate. Additionally, capitalist projects often attempt to “mitigate risk”, including the harm they might cause to the environment that could cost them money in terms of having to pay for cleanup. Typically, only when risk becomes so high as to threaten profits do companies decide to not go forward with a project.

When it comes to deep-sea oil extraction, a lot of risk is involved: the deep water environment is very high pressure, as well as cold, dark, and hard to reach. So when failure happens, it is difficult to regain control, and spills have the potential to be catastrophic. Until recently, extracting deep-sea oil was too expensive for companies to actually attempt it, so these risks were more of a hypothetical. However, according to Greenpeace, “a combination of declining global oil reserves from traditional sources and rising oil prices worldwide has driven companies to seek out ever riskier sources of oil in order to maintain their revenue streams.” Thus, despite risks, and despite that 60% of oil and gas reserves must stay in the ground for even a 50% chance at keeping temperatures below 1.5°C warming, deep-sea oil drilling is now taking place in Aotearoa and around the world.

Does the ocean have a right to clean, unpolluted waters? Do its fragile coral ecosystems have a right to life? How might the legal recognition of Māori kaitiakitanga over their oceans provide a line of defense against deep-sea oil extraction to protect Aotearoa’s marine environment and fight climate change? And, in addition—critical in its own right regardless of the global and local environmental benefits that might come of it—could this help to strengthen Māori sovereignty over their home?

Māori have already been resisting deep-sea oil drilling; they are on the frontlines leading the fight and call for others, including Pākehā—the white settler population of Aotearoa—to join. For example, environmental lawyer and spokeswoman Dayle Takutimu has led her iwi, Te Whanau a Apanui, in battles against oil extraction. In response to oil giant Petrobras beginning to survey deep-sea sites off the East Cape, she declared, “We are resolute in our defense of our ancestral lands and waters from the destructive practice of deep sea oil drilling. This is an issue for all peoples of New Zealand and we call on those who support our opposition to stand with us in defense of what we all treasure.” Many Māori see oil drilling in Aotearoa as a challenge to the Treaty of Waitangi. Zoltan Grossman, a professor at The Evergreen State College, asserts that “[the Treaty] can be seen as a powerful tool to protect the common coastal environment, in much the same way that the Northwest treaties help protect salmon habitat.” Political protection of sovereignty rights, for North American indigenous groups and Māori alike, enhance the ability of these groups to effectively protect the non-human environment that we and the rest of our ecosystems rely on. Enhancing the ability of indigenous people to carry out responsible environmental stewardship, such as by reflecting Māori kaitiakitanga in law as New Zealand did by formally establishing the Whanganui Iwi’s guardianship over Te Awa Tupua, is more than just an ethical responsibility to the treaty rights and unceded sovereignty of Māori and other indigenous groups. This guardianship provides benefits to everybody in terms of health and climate, while also repairing our relationship to each other as humans through the restorative justice of decolonization.

Working towards long-term sustainability on this planet means we all need to once again find our place in ecosystems as responsible stewards for the land—and, in order to ensure justice for the Earth and the people who are a part of it, we must give land back to those from whom it has been stolen through the violence of settler colonialism. Indigenous peoples, through resilience and survival in the face of genocide, have held onto knowledge of the stewardship practices and beliefs that reinforce a healthy relationship between humanity and the rest of the Earth. Anthropogenic climate change on a significant scale began with the Industrial Revolution, which originated in England and was deeply entangled with the country’s role in colonialism and the rise of capitalism. A real systems-change solution to our climate emergency, then, includes a cultural shift away from capitalist, extractivist (and colonial) ways of thinking about the Earth, and a political shift that decolonizes our lands—and oceans—by giving the power to manage them back to the Indigenous peoples that have taken care of them since time immemorial.

Thus, true climate justice includes decolonization. In a report titled “Petrobras and the CO2lonisation of Aotearoa,” Amazon Watch states that “[t]hose hit first and worst are most often the least responsible for the crisis yet are actively leading the fight against major climate polluters.

They require globalized support and solidarity in defending their answers to an ecological crisis which they have not caused or reaped untold profits from.” This support and solidarity with indigenous leadership is crucial in taking a decolonial approach to climate justice. As indigenous people around the world resist development of fossil fuel infrastructure, including in the U.S. and Canada where successful and ongoing resistance adds up to nearly a quarter of the countries’ total annual carbon emissions, we must stand with them—in our words, our actions, our monetary mutual aid—to stop fossil fuels from leaving the ground, to get land back to whom it rightfully belongs, and to encourage an indigenous-led paradigm shift in the way we relate to the world around us. In this way, we can permanently repair our relationship to the Earth and heal from the climate crisis, colonialism, and capitalism for good.

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