In a world-first law, one of the planet's most remote rainforests has been passed back to its Indigenous owners and granted the same legal status as people.
Rugged, immense, and intensely remote, Te Urewera is the largest rainforest on New Zealand's North Island. Spanning 2,127sq km of emerald lakes, thundering waterfalls and a mist-shrouded canopy that is home to nearly every species of native birds in New Zealand, this sparsely populated, pristine ecosystem has been home to the Indigenous Tūhoe people for centuries.
In 2014, the world-first law brought an end to government ownership of Te Urewera National Park and recognised the rainforest as its own legal entity. And the Tūhoe people as its legal guardians. It also gave the forest the same legal rights as a person. Ever since, many of the roughly 7,000 Tūhoe people who live near Te Urewera's river valleys have been encouraging visitors to connect with their sacred land on a more meaningful level.
Today, the ownership and stewardship by the Tūhoe people is reaping its hoped for benefits. They are offering guided treks, off-the-grid bushcamp-style tent lodging, traditional home-cooked meals and the chance to participate in rainforest reforestation projects. Tūhoe-owned companies believe that tourists leave with a newfound appreciation of their ancestral home and also a heightened sense of the ancient Maori practice of kaitiakitanga, or "guardianship", in which people live in harmony with the natural world.