Antarctic Management: A Fresh Perspective With Ancient Roots
Since 1959, Antarctica and its surrounding waters have been governed by the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS), designating the land and ice shelves as a scientific preserve. It also prohibits military activities and regulates expeditions. In 2048, some aspects of the treaty will expire and be open for renegotiation among the treaty’s parties. In anticipation of this, New Zealand — one of the original signatories to the treaty — is reviewing its national research strategy for the Antarctic and Southern Oceans. In a paper published in Nature, researchers propose that the conventional Western conception of territorial management could be expanded and enriched by adopting a more relational, reciprocal framework between humans and their non-human kin. This type of framework is embodied in Māori and other traditional Indigenous thought.
The Māori people of New Zealand have a rich historical relationship with Antarctica, spanning thousands of years from the earliest explorations 3,000 years ago. For millennia, Māori people have navigated the southern seas, traced the seasonal migratory patterns of whales, and maintained a careful balance of resources. The history and lore of ancient Antarctic exploration and the sense of stewardship toward the natural world permeate Māori culture and identity. Their shared history gives the Māori people unique insight into the past, present, and future of Antarctica.
In spite of the importance of indigenous relationships with Antarctica, its management has been largely dominated by a Western, colonial framework. At present, Antarctic regulation serves a broad range of interests, from tourism, mining, and fishing to conservation and research. Approaching Antarctic regulations from a strictly Western point of view risks prioritizing immediate political interests over the long-term well-being of the continent, its waterways, and its flora and fauna. The present period, in which parties to the ATS are reevaluating their approach to Antarctic research, protection, and regulation, presents an opportunity to shift the conceptual framework to one more closely aligned with traditional Māori ideas of interdependence, long-term sustainability, and stewardship.
The Māori philosophy of stewardship and sustainability could help to balance out the Western tendency to over-consume resources in the short term. Western regulation of resources has been guilty of short-sightedness, favoring immediate profitability over long-term sustainability (think American bison, passenger pigeons, and the Amazon rainforest). Māori culture, on the other hand, emphasizes responsibility toward nature, which historically enabled the Māori people to engage in whaling and sealing in the southern oceans while protecting their populations through catch size limits and seasonal and spatial closures.
A Māori perspective, which emphasizes the kinship and interdependence of humans and nature, could provide an important counterweight to the traditional Western framework of colonialism and conquest. The ATS represents one of humankind’s rare attempts at international collaboration in governing a shared space. But even under this forward-thinking system, participating nations have failed to resist the urge to informally plant their flags and stake their claims to chunks of the continent. Early Western explorers saw Antarctica as virgin territory to be discovered and claimed through heroic self-sufficiency, even though the territory had long been the site of Indigenous exploration and hunting. Western explorers have viewed Antarctica as an adversary to be bested and conquered. By contrast, Māori philosophy has long recognized the intimate, interdependent relationship between humans and their environment, even granting legal personhood to certain rivers.
For animal advocates, it’s important to understand how Indigenous cultures relate to the environment so we can be sensitive to their cultural history and traditions. As New Zealand examines its priorities for Antarctica, insights from the Māori community can help other ATS signatories make equitable decisions about Antarctic conservation and land management. Many international regulatory institutions aim to be collaborative and inclusive but fall short of true inclusivity by failing to incorporate indigenous knowledge and interests into their decision-making. By including not just Indigenous people and voices, but also Indigenous thought and understanding, regulators shaping the future of Antarctica can expand the range of ideas available to them in order to continue learning about and protecting the ecosystem for generations to come.