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2021 Early Career Researcher Award for Humanities: Jurisdiction and Distribution – Understanding the importance of Indigenous water rights

Associate Professor Elizabeth Jane Macpherson has been presented the 2021 Royal Society Te Apārangi Early Career Research Excellence Award for Humanities, for her work exploring opportunities for Indigenous peoples' water rights in laws and policies around the world.

The award is presented for the encouragement of early-career researchers currently based in New Zealand for humanities research in New Zealand by Royal Society Te Apārangi. Elizabeth is currently an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Law at the University of Canterbury.

Elizabeth has been working on issues of Indigenous and environmental justice for the past eighteen years. She uses a ‘law in context’ method to understand the operation of law on the ground and hopes to collect evidence that will encourage governments to implement legislative and policy changes in order to address environmental issues.

Staff ProfilesLawElizabeth McPherson 13

In 2019, Elizabeth released her book Indigenous Water Rights in Law and Regulation: Lessons from Comparative Experience (Cambridge University Press), which is regarded as the first comprehensive examination of laws and policies around the world that protect Indigenous peoples’ rights to use and regulate water. The book provides comparative studies in Chile, Colombia, Aotearoa and Australia – four countries where work to recognise Indigenous water rights is underway. Her analysis of these examples offers a glimpse into a future possible world where Indigenous peoples have both a fair share of rights to use water resources for any purpose, and the recognised authority or jurisdiction to make decisions about the management of water.

Indigenous Water Rights in Law and Regulation is ground-breaking in its coverage and the insights it offers into international legal and policy frameworks for Indigenous water rights, drawing on Elizabeth’s Spanish language skills and in-depth fieldwork in each country. It provides a compelling account of the struggle of Indigenous peoples for ownership and governance of water, which is central to their lives and community.

The book is already being used in evidence to judicial bodies, government commissions and inquiries, and by Indigenous communities. The impact and relevance of Elizabeth’s findings can also be seen here in Aotearoa, where the government has embarked on water law and policy reform.

In 2020, Indigenous Water Rights in Law and Regulation was awarded the 2020 Law and Society Association of Australia and NZ (LSAANZ) prize for most outstanding book. Since its release, it has received excellent reviews.

Elizabeth continues to work with Indigenous organisations, governments and environmental NGOs on issues of natural resource management and environmental law. She is a passionate investigator, who has received significant external research funding, including leading the Sustainable Seas National Science Challenge project on ‘Law and Policy for Ecosystem-based Marine Management’ and the international project ‘Riverine Rights: Exploring the Currents and Consequences of Legal Innovations on the Rights of Rivers’ funded by the Norwegian Research Council. Her research in these projects is co-developed with government agencies and Indigenous communities with the goal of driving both local and international reform.

Upon receiving this award, Elizabeth said:

“I am very honoured to be recognised with this award from the Royal Society Te Apārangi. I research environmental law and policy because I hope there can be some improvement in how we protect ecosystems and their biodiversity, for the benefit of future generations – we are seeing rapid deterioration in ecosystem health in Aotearoa New Zealand, and this requires urgent action.

“My work on Indigenous water rights is the product of collaborations with many inspirational people from around the world. I want to acknowledge the critical and unresolved nature of water issues for Indigenous peoples internationally, including Māori iwi/hapū in Aotearoa, and recognise Indigenous leadership in driving water law and policy reform. I am indebted to the many people who agreed to be interviewed for this research across Australia, Chile, Aotearoa and Colombia; their local expertise was critical to my findings.

“There are many people to thank, but I am especially grateful to the Faculty of Law at the University of Canterbury and Melbourne Law School for their support of my research, Cambridge University Press, and the New Zealand Law Foundation, Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment and Research Council of Norway for funding my research endeavours. Finally, I thank my children Santiago, Leonor, Carmela and Margot, and my partner Sam, who the book is dedicated to. I grew up swimming in Aotearoa’s rivers, and it is my hope that my children will be able to do the same.”


The Royal Society Te Apārangi Early Career Research Excellence Award for Humanities is awarded annually for the encouragement of early career researchers currently based in New Zealand for humanities research in New Zealand.


To Elizabeth Jane Macpherson for her work on opportunities for Indigenous peoples' water rights in laws and policies around the world.