Indigenous | Environment

Research may show iwi how to commercialise native plant products using tikanga Māori

Dr David Jefferson, from the University of Canterbury’s Faculty of Law, is investigating the impact of the Plant Variety Rights Act 2022. (Photo: Supplied)

New research at Te Whare Wānanga o Waitaha focuses on the impacts for iwi- and hapū-owned native plant nurseries in protecting taonga plants and mātauranga Māori.

The project, led by legal anthropologist Dr David Jefferson, explores the Plant Variety Rights Act 2022 and other legal frameworks.

“As of early 2024 new protections for taonga species and mātauranga Māori that were created in 2022 have not yet been implemented, so many questions remain about how these changes will function in practice,” Jefferson said.

“One of these legal developments, the Plant Variety Rights Act 2022, may eventually provide useful tools for iwi- and hapū-owned initiatives that commercialise native plant-based products in accordance with tikanga Māori.” Jefferson said.

During the past year, the University of Canterbury teacher has visited half a dozen iwi-owned or marae-affiliated plant nurseries across the country, and he says saying many Māori people he’s spoken to don’t believe any one iwi should have exclusive rights to taonga plants.

“In the fieldwork I’ve been doing so far with Māori-owned native plant nurseries, to the extent that people even know about the Plant Variety Rights Act, they don’t really think it’s that significant because they’re not really interested in protection for their varieties. They are generally not concerned with claiming property rights for taonga.

Separate framework?

“People familiar with environmental and intellectual property law policy suggest some sort of separate framework for the protection of taonga plants and mātauranga Māori that would be based on Treaty principles of partnership.”

During his research he plans on including more Māori-owned nurseries and native plant enterprises.

“There are revegetation efforts underway all over the country, along riverbanks, on mountain slopes, coastal hills, and waterways located on agricultural land.

“These efforts are laudable but they are not always, or maybe even often, led by mana whenua, so there are ongoing Treaty [of Waitangi] issues around who decides what species to plant and where, from where to source seeds, and generally how to manage the whenua,” he says in a statement.

Jefferson notes significant resourcing differences among iwi and hapū, with mana whenua having substantial control over biodiversity restoration in some areas and being effectively excluded in others.

Protecting new varieties

“Plant variety rights are a form of intellectual property, similar to patents. If a new plant variety distinct from others is created, then a Plant Variety Right can be applied for. For example, a plant breeder may develop a new variety of a native plant such as harakeke and seek to protect it with plant variety rights.

“Under the new Plant Variety Rights Act, the breeder would need to demonstrate that obtaining exclusive rights to this new variety of harakeke, a native plant, would not have adverse effects on kaitiaki relationships with that species.”

Adverse effects could include hybridisation with native varieties impacting ecosystems, or non-Māori businesses gaining an unfair advantage over Māori-owned native plant enterprises.

The research is expected to be published early next year.