Is Mātauranga Māori truly being considered in intellectual property law reforms?

01 June 2022

#Earth&Ocean A University of Canterbury researcher is investigating how the laws of Aotearoa New Zealand, specifically the current review of the Plant Variety Rights Act 1987, could be reformed to protect kaitiaki relationships with taonga plant species and mātauranga Māori more effectively.

  • David Jefferson

    University of Canterbury Faculty of Law lecturer Dr David Jefferson

Sustainable Development Goals 15 - Life on Land

Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 15 - Life On Land

University of Canterbury (UC) Faculty of Law lecturer, Dr David Jefferson, has received a Vision Mātauranga grant to look at the reform of the New Zealand intellectual property (IP) system and understand how it fits within the context of Te Tiriti o Waitangi and the promises the treaty makes. He has been working on access and benefit sharing for about a decade, focusing specifically on protection of indigenous knowledge for the last five years, in Australia, South American Andean countries, and parts of Asia.

“It was serendipitous that I moved to Aotearoa at the exact same time this proposed reform was introduced to Parliament, as I studied something very similar in Ecuador,” Dr Jefferson says.

“This research seemed like a natural fit, but the obvious gap is that I needed to learn so much about iwi politics and Māori concepts and history, so that’s what I really tried to get up to speed on.”

The Plant Variety Rights Act 1987 is based on an international model for IP of plants, which was developed by a small number of European countries in the 1960s for the commercial plant-breeding sector. It is currently being reviewed to meet international trade obligations and to align with Waitangi Tribunal findings in the 2011 Wai 262 claim.

Dr Jefferson says it was a fine law, however it was created for a very narrow purpose and no longer meets the needs of Aotearoa New Zealand.

“I’m basically looking at this reform to determine whether it’s just going to be lip service to Māori words and concepts, or if the proposed reform is actually going to fulfil the constitutional level promises that Aotearoa New Zealand has under the Treaty of Waitangi.”

He says this research is important for fulfilling those promises as they are core principles that Aotearoa New Zealand is founded on and will contribute to finding solutions to improve our relationships with ecosystems.

“We need to have innovative solutions to overcome well known and challenging problems such as climate change, global heating, species loss across the spectrum and a tremendous loss of biodiversity,” Dr Jefferson says.

“Authentic and meaningful partnership recognising Tikanga Māori as a source of law is one way to move past the Western European capitalistic, myopic series of solutions that have been proposed in the past.”

The proposed reform to the act is based around the concept of kaitiakitanga, meaning stewardship and guardianship, which he says western culture tends to perceive as conserving the environment by separating it from humanity.

“In my readings and conversations, I’m learning that the concept of tino rangatiratanga is a little more relevant [than kaitiakitanga] when talking about this reform, because we’re really talking about ideas such as being in governance and self-determination.”

Dr Jefferson says this includes utilisation of plants, and the law is not about an untouched natural environment, but nurturing reciprocal relationships between humans and plants.

“Historically kaitiaki were things like taniwha or animals or plants, different parts of the environment that protected humans. Now it’s been a little flipped as we’re looking at how we can protect plants or environments,” he says.

“If we really think about these concepts and incorporating them into law, it will also relate to things like conservation laws and environmental issues,” he says.

Dr Jefferson says his research is leading him to pose further questions, such as what does it mean to be kaitiaki in this space? And what does it mean to have rangatiratanga over aspects of the environment including plants?

“I’m talking to a lot of people to try and understand what it really means to embody this principle of tino rangatiratanga if we’re talking about taonga plant species, and what the concept of taonga means in this space as well,” says Dr Jefferson.

“There are tensions because on one hand it has to conform to global standards but on the other it has to be extremely localised and respectful of local politics and relationships.”

Media contact:

  • Email: Ph: (03) 369 3631 or 027 503 0168
Prof Steven Ratuva

Leader of innovative Pacific climate change project wins award

A collective approach to research has opened doors to almost 80 scholars from more than 10 universities to work with Distinguished Professor Steven ...

Makerspace Art

The sustainable Makerspace providing wellbeing and skills

Each month, at least 500 University of Canterbury (UC) students and staff visit Te Rua Makerspace in the central library, where Kairuruku Wāhi-auaha | ...