Māori and Biodiversity

The Māori relationship with indigenous biodiversity has developed over many centuries of reliance upon natural resources for survival. It still remains an integral element of life for many Māori, in particular those living in rural communities, who still have access to traditional resources. In addition to these traditional uses, Māori interest in biodiversity extends beyond geographic and political boundaries to encompass fisheries (including aquaculture), agriculture and forestry. As kaitiaki of the biodiversity of tribal areas they are responsible for the long term survival of ecosystems and native species. 2572  The following sections outline key issues for the Māori relationship with biodiversity.

A mātaitai reserve around Mount Maunganui protects both customary and recreational fishing in this area (Credit: Lucy Break)

Land loss and biodiversity decline

During the pre-European period of early Māori settlement there were some significant biodiversity losses of both flora and fauna. The first stage of decline was a loss of the larger bird species, including the moa which was hunted to extinction. Large tracts of native forest were cleared by burning. By around 1600, approximately one third of the original forests in New Zealand had been replaced by grasslands. 2573

Māori lost a vast amount of tribal land during the 19th century. 2574  The European concept of land ownership does not exist in Māori tradition; rather land is occupied by kin groups and held through stewardship instead of ownership. 2575  Usage rights are intricately constructed with various rights divided at different familial levels. There may be certain rights applying to the whole iwi, another set of rights for hapū, and then further rights applying to separate whānau. 2576

For Māori-owned land, which is often under multiple-ownership, the tension between economic development and biodiversity protection is often even stronger because, in many cases, this land has only been returned to iwi under recent settlements. In addition, because this land has not yet been developed to date, it often includes areas that are important for biodiversity protection such as regenerating bush. Yet, for iwi, the need to provide opportunities for economic benefits through land development is more urgent, owing to lack of such opportunities in the past.

Loss of marine biodiversity and kaimoana

For Māori, the coastline and marine environment is traditionally a place to source food and resources, as well as being fundamental to travel and communication. While Māori settlement was not limited to the coast, the coast has always been dominant in living and food-gathering activities. Inland tribes often accessed kaimoana (seafood) by way of putanga, or corridors to the coast. As coastal and marine biodiversity has become increasingly threatened, Māori have become increasingly concerned about the subsequent impacts on kaimoana. The degradation of marine resources is more evident in urban environments.

Loss of traditional biodiversity knowledge

Historically, only expert individuals, tohunga and wānanga (Māori learning schools) transferred traditional Māori knowledge on biodiversity values and protection. With modern influences, this process has gradually decreased and the transfer of knowledge has increasingly been achieved in the form of recordings, collections and dissemination of mātauranga Māori. 2577

Mātauranga Māori is a central part of biodiversity management, but the role of this traditional knowledge is not well recognised. Such knowledge is under-utilised and vulnerable to loss. In addition, there is little recognition of the contribution this knowledge could make towards achieving the biodiversity gains being sought in this country. There is also a conflict between sharing of information with the wider public, and the protection of this knowledge from inappropriate use.

Reduced ability to apply traditional knowledge

For many Māori, the ownership and use of mātauranga Māori is critical to moving forward with biodiversity management. The WAI 262 claim is about who controls Māori traditional knowledge, artistry, culture, and the environment that created that culture. It considers what place in contemporary New Zealand living these things should have. The claim encompasses cultural values, such as the obligation of iwi and hapū to act as kaitiaki for traditional knowledge, cultural practices, important places, and flora and fauna significant to Māori.

The Waitangi Tribunal released its report ‘Ko Aotearoa Tenei: Report of the Waitangi Tribunal into claims concerning law and policy affecting Māori culture and identity (Wai 262)’ in July 2011. 2578  It made a series of recommendations that included the establishment of Maori advisory bodies relating to patents and environmental protection.

The Tribunal also recommended amendments to legislation relating to Māori language, resource management, wildlife, conservation, cultural artefacts, environmental protection, patents on plant varieties, and more. The report urged New Zealand to move on to a new era based on genuine partnership. It is not clear the extent to which these recommendations will be adopted as the government has yet to provide a substantive response to them.

Lack of constructive management partnerships

The review of the Biodiversity Strategy in 2005 identified that the success of the Ngā Whenua Rāhui fund has resulted in a significant increase in interest in covenanting Māori-owned land, as well as in improving pest control. However, the review pointed out that there has been minimal change in the engagement and participation of Māori with government agencies and local authorities in regards to managing specific habitats and species. Historically, there has been some tension between the government’s approaches to biodiversity management and Māori approaches.

The identification of significant natural areas under s6(c) of the RMA on Māori land has led to conflicts between Māori, and local authorities and conservationists. The identification of significant natural areas can be viewed by Māori as another level of control and compliance. Dialogue between parties is essential in understanding Māori and community biodiversity values.

Contestable funds

Funding is an important part of the government’s efforts to support Māori in their efforts to protect indigenous biodiversity. Two main contestable funds administered by the Department of Conservation are currently available: the Ngā Whenua Rāhui Fund and the Mātauranga Kura Taiao Fund.

The Ngā Whenua Rāhui Fund offers covenanting options to protect indigenous ecosystems, including native forest habitat, on Māori land. Under this covenanting framework, areas of biodiversity value on Māori land are protected by a type of covenant, called Ngā Whenua Rāhui kawenata, using provisions in the Reserves Act. Areas of biodiversity value on Māori land can also be set aside as Māori reservations under the Te Ture Whenua Act 1993. Each of these mechanisms provides on-going funding for expenses such as fencing and weed control. A range of organisations representing iwi and hapu can apply. The Mātauranga Kura Taiao Fund aims to recognise mātauranga Māori (traditional knowledge) in biodiversity management and it supports iwi, hapū and whanau initiatives. The funding has been made available as part of the implementation package for the Biodiversity Strategy.

Case Study: Managaroa/Ototu Trust

The Managaroa/Ototu Trust was established to promote sustainable economic, social, cultural and conservation development. It strives for continual improvement of environmental performance on behalf of the Te Whānau a Apanui Iwi. The trust has undertaken a number of projects assisted by the Nga Whenua Rāhui Fund.

Work to restore both physical and spiritual richness is being carried out in the Managaroa/Ototu area located in the North Island east of Opotiki. The forest was being progressively degraded due to encroachment by goads and deer, and predation from stoats, rats and possums. The Trust undertook a programme of pest eradication which has restored the forest and increased bird populations. The pest control programme provided the necessary conditions to initiate a second project; to reintroduce the native North Island kōkako.

In 2005, 18 kōkako were released in Ngapukeariki, which had been a natural habitat for the species in the past. As a forest dwelling bird with limited flying ability, the kōkako has been highly susceptible to introduced predators, and it is now classified as an endangered species. One challenge the project had to face early on was how to keep the birds within the pest-controlled area, where they would be safe from predators. Knowing that the birds have a tendency to remain in areas where there are other kōkako, a pair of the birds was kept in a confined area, to encourage the other kōkako to stay close by. The relocation fo the kōkako involved considerable planning, discussions between Tūhoe iwi and Te Whānau a Apanui, and coordination with Department of Conservation, to decide how the operation would be carried out. 

This case study highlights the benefits that can be realised from collaborative projects which include partnerships with landowners. It also demonstrates the importance of funding to support biodiversity restoration projects.

Collaborative research

Research can provide access to a whole range of new tools and techniques to help improve biodiversity management. Science provides an opportunity to expand the current knowledge base on indigenous biodiversity. The merging of the mainstream science with Māori science (ma-tauranga) is important in order to achieve this. By incorporating the Māori perspective, as well as an ecological and scientific perspective, into research on biodiversity, common management approaches and responses can be generated. The Ministry for Science and Innovation encourages research collaboration with iwi and hapû .Collaborative research projects between Crown Research Institutes, universities and iwi/hapū are important to increase the pool of knowledge on indigenous species and approaches, such as how biology interacts with kaitiakitanga. An example is the collaborative research work between Manaaki Whenua and Te Whare Wa-nanga o Ngāti Porou between 1998 and 2003 where Māori community goals for enhancing ecosystem health were developed. Research using performance indicators is increasingly important in biodiversity management. Being able to encompass all aspects of biodiversity is a challenge. By developing specific indicators for habitats that cover Māori values, goals and aspirations (such as key sensitive taonga), community values (such as pest damage), and science (including areas such as hydrology and botany), it is far more likely that biodiversity values will be enhanced and protected.

  1. Te Ara, 2010, Te Taiao Maori and the natural world, David Bateman Limited, Auckland

  2. Patterson J, 2000, People of the land: A Pacific philosophy, Dunmore Press Limited, Palmerston North

  3. Boast R, A Erueti, D McPhail and N F Smith, 2004, Maori land law, Second Edition, LexisNexis NZ Limited, Wellington

  4. www.biodiversity.govt.nz

  5. http://www.waitangi-tribunal.govt.nz/news/media/wai262.asp

Last updated at 1:55PM on February 25, 2015