In an attempt to protect the integrity and well-being of Mount Taranaki, a dormant volcano within the Egmont National Park on North Island in New Zealand, the mountain will be granted “legal personality” status, meaning the meaning the volcano will have “all the rights, powers, duties, and liabilities of a legal person.”
The decision comes after the indigenous Māori people launched a campaign to defend the mountain from the negative impact of tourism, which often results in the mistreatment of natural spaces. “Rubbish being dropped, people standing in sacred spots and, worse still, people defecating on it; these have become real issues,” said George White, from Top Guides NZ.
In 2013, thanks to efforts by the local Māori population, the Te Urewera National Park on North Island received similar protection, and last year, the Whanganui River was also granted person status. Mount Taranaki, which rises 2,518 meters above New Plymouth, on the west coast of the North Island, has recently experienced a surge in tourism after being named a top destination by the Lonely Planet travel guide.
“[The damage] is not only unpleasant but a huge insult to the Māori who see the mountain as a person already,” White said. “The thing you need to know is that the Māori don’t believe we own the land but rather we come from the land.”
The Māori have personified Mount Taranaki by referring to the volcano in folk tales as a man battling rival Mount Tongariro for the affections of the smaller Mount Pihanga. “So you see it makes sense,” White said. “Giving the mountain person status will hopefully mean that people think a little more carefully before doing anything they shouldn’t. You wouldn’t drop litter or go to the toilet on the resting place of your ancestors – and that’s what Taranaki is to the Taranaki iwi people: an ancestor.”
According to Hemi Sundgren, CEO of the Te Kotahitanga o Te Atiawa Trust, established to manage land settlement issues for the Māori community, access to the mountain will not change, “but it does give a set of legal rights and the obligation and responsibility on our people (and the broader community) to uphold those values that maintain life and health.”
Last year, while climbing the mountain, former Playboy model Jaylene Cook posted a nude picture of herself on Instagram. Locals found her actions disrespectful noting that since they view the mountain as an ancestor, they believe it is inappropriate to wash, be naked or relieve oneself on the mountain. Cook, a New Zealander, who was photographed by her Australian boyfriend Josh Shaw, disagreed with the Māori community, stating that she felt that being nude atop the volcano was"pure and natural."
Other New Zealanders, however, agreed with the Māori. Jay Finlayson, vice-president of Federated Mountain Clubs, a national association of climbing and tramping clubs, stated in a blog post, "Our national identity is tied up in Aotearoa's hills, where the cash economy barely registers. It's a place of nature on nature's terms, egalitarian and healthy, a place of adventure, food gathering, camaraderie and many stories. New Zealanders' relationships with and within the great outdoors should unquestionably be safeguarded."
The Maori hope that awarding Mount Taranaki personhood will lead to more national landmarks being given protection.