For the indigenous people of New Zealand, whales are more than animals. The Maori see a direct line of connection between themselves and the marine mammals and consider them their ancestors. As relatives. According to tradition, they were once protected by Tohorā (the Maori word for whales) as they traveled across the oceans. Today the Maori see themselves as guardians of the endangered giants. Whales are also considered sacred by other indigenous islanders in the South Pacific – especially in Polynesia. Some of their leaders have now joined forces to give the animals a new status: that of a legal entity.

A few days ago, a corresponding agreement called “He Whakaputanga Moana” – Declaration for the Ocean – was signed on Rarotonga, the largest of the Cook Islands. In addition to the Maori King Tuheitia Paki, more than a dozen high-ranking representatives of the indigenous people of the Cook Islands and Tahiti took part in the ceremony. Their hope is that other islands in the region will join the initiative and that such a step can ultimately become established internationally. The goal: to create a basis for better protecting whales worldwide.

Indigenous people are considered guardians of the earth

“The song of our ancestors has become weaker and their habitat is threatened, which is why we must act now,” said King Tuheitia Paki. “We can no longer turn a blind eye. Whales play a critical role in the health of our entire marine ecosystem.” The decline in their populations is disrupting the delicate balance on which all life in the Pacific is based. “We must act urgently to protect these magnificent creatures before it is too late.”

The indigenous peoples are considered guardians of the earth because they live in close connection with nature and see life as a whole in a larger cosmic context. In their belief, everything living is connected. According to a report by the environmental foundation WWF, indigenous peoples are the best allies for protecting nature. “Over generations they have accumulated invaluable knowledge about nature and its sustainable use.” But global greed for resources threatens these peoples as well as the ecoregions in which they live.

Whales are important climate protectors

Marine mammals are threatened not only by climate change, pollution, noise and collisions with ships, but also by commercial whaling. Species such as the blue whale, the bowhead whale and the Western Pacific gray whale are already considered critically endangered and are at risk of soon becoming extinct.

At the same time, whales are important climate protectors: “They mix nutrients in the sea and, through their excretions, promote the growth of phytoplankton, which produces more than half of the world’s oxygen,” says the website of the organization Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC). Their bodies served as huge carbon stores and, after their death, were a valuable source of food for life in the deep sea.

“Across the Pacific, indigenous peoples have always lived in harmony with the ocean,” wrote Maori environmentalist Mere Takoko about the signed declaration in the climate and culture magazine Atmos. The sea is not just a source of food, “but a living ancestor, a repository of knowledge that is passed down through generations.” And whales are more than just resources to be exploited: “They are also sentient beings and our ancestors.”

No binding contract yet

But what does legal status entail? According to Takoko, such a measure goes far beyond traditional protection measures because it recognizes whales as persons with inherent rights. “These include the right to freedom of movement, to a healthy environment and to thrive alongside humanity.” If a ship were to injure or even kill a whale, this would probably result in heavy fines. Insurance companies could then require the owners to install special monitoring or anti-collision devices.

Takoko is convinced that the declaration is not yet a binding international treaty, but it still has considerable weight. There is already a global discussion about the legal and ethical status of whales. And the concept is not new, but inspired by the “Te Urewera Act” of 2014 – which made New Zealand a pioneer in environmental protection.

At that time, Parliament declared the Te Urewera forest area on the North Island a legal entity and granted it all the fundamental rights associated with it. This was followed in 2017 by the Whanganui River, the third longest river in the country. This is now recognized as an indivisible and living whole, encompassing its entire course from the mountains to the sea and all its physical and metaphysical elements. It was only last year that Mount Taranaki Maunga was given the same legal entity status.

Humans at war with the Earth

“The songs of whales are more than just beguiling melodies: they are a barometer for the health of the ocean,” Takoko summed it up. “Your diminuendo is a wake-up call.” Humanity must move again from a worldview of exploitation to a worldview of coexistence.

Or as Oren R. Lyons, noted environmental activist of the Onondaga indigenous tribe, put it in a widely acclaimed speech at the UN Peace Summit in 2000: “There can be no peace as long as we are at war with our mother, the Earth. ” Responsible and courageous measures must be taken so that humanity can live in harmony with the laws of nature again.