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Terese McLeod - Voices of the Kaiwharawhara

Terese McLeod - Voices of the Kaiwharawhara

Interviews and text by Janel Hull

Terese McLeod is a mana whenua nature advocate who is leading a first of its kind campaign to grant the Kaiwharawhara Awa legal personhood.


Terese McLeod. Photo: Stuff Limited

The day before the first nationwide Covid-19 lockdown, Terese McLeod (Taranaki Whānui, Clan McLeod) visited her local grocery store and grabbed a handful of magazines. North & South sat at the top of the pile and contained an article sharing the story of the Whanganui River receiving legal personhood. Terese got to reading as lockdown went into effect. While she knew well of Te Urewera and Whanganui natural assets acquiring legal personhoods, this article sparked Terese’s realisation that the Kaiwharawhara could potentially acquire legal personhood too.

Terese is a “devout Wellingtonian.” She is the Bicultural Engagement Lead Ranger at Zealandia Te Māra a Tāne where she works to “bring the Māori world view into the sanctuary space for everyone.” Terese is dedicated to “decolonising thinking” and sharing her knowledge of te ao Māori in her advocacy for nature. In fact, she volunteered in her current role for a whole year before being officially hired. She laughs, joking that this was “the ultimate interview.”

The Kaiwharawhara Awa meanders from Zealandia down to the estuary through many land uses, making legal personhood complicated. Photo: Zealandia

Although she grew up around large, dramatic rivers, this “humble stream” is special to her. “I don’t need a dramatic river to care about, humble streams are just as valid” and provide enormous potential to problem solve our human impact on te taiao in our backyards. Terese talks reverently of all the species that live in the stream. She explains that she feels it’s our collective responsibility to care for nature and all its creatures.

Listen to Terese talk about how she learned to love this humble awa.

Since March 2020, Terese has been advocating for nature through exploring a Kaiwharawhara legal personhood claim. She started the process by partnering with Professor Catherine Iorns at Te Herenga Waka Victoria University of Wellington. Terese chuckles, explaining that this relationship began when Terese saw Professor Iorns speaking at a local event. During the intermission, she quickly approached Catherine before the professor could even take a sip of tea.

“I jumped all over her and said ‘will you please help me? She agreed on the spot.”

In addition to partnering with Professor Iorns, Terese has been consulting community, iwi, and hapū to ensure community voices will shape the process. If the legal claim is successful, it could have huge implications for the awa.

Legal personhood would affirm te ao Māori/the Māori world view. Terese explains “culturally speaking, we view rivers as living entities.” For her, the Kaiwharawhara represents a relationship with “an elderly aunt or an elderly nan, that I go and visit, check on and I care about her health.” “Enshrining that idea” of personhood in the law would be validating and transformative “for both Māori and non-Māori.” In fact, the Kaiwharawhara would be the first legal personhood claim that is “an all of community request, rather than a tribal one based around Te Tiriti o Waitangi settlements.” “It’s therefore unprecedented” and would provide a legal structure for both Māori and treaty partners to “co-voice the Kaiwharawhara” together.

But the process hasn’t come without its challenges. Firstly, the Kaiwharawhara crosses many property boundaries and land uses. “When the awa flows outside of the fence, it goes through complex suburban environments, complex industrial environments, and encounters different negative human activity and impact” along the way. Legal processes for landscapes like this are incredibly complex and lengthy. Terese can sometimes get demoralised when people demand that it happen quickly. “Time, energy, and resources” are always few and far between, so the process requires endurance, stamina, and patience. “Whanganui took generations, I hope that this doesn’t and that the work done by the Whanganui and Tūhoe Iwi have given the processes some expediency.”

Despite these challenges, she is hopeful that Wellingtonians can all play a part in advocating for the Kaiwharawhara to have a voice. “Wellingtonians with proximity to the awa are some of our biggest advocates.” Whether it’s predator trapping, litter pickups, or driving less, Terese encourages every local to take action to care for the awa.

Even early in the process, Terese is heartened by how the legal personhood process has driven the whole community to get engaged. Not only has it “shone a spotlight on the Kaiwharawhara continuously,” but it also has shown the whole world watching that Wellingtonians truly “mean business” when it comes to caring for our rivers and streams.


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