Māori and Biodiversity

The Māori worldview - te ao Māori

The Māori worldview considers everything living and non-living to be interconnected. Whakapapa describe these connections and tell the story of how people, the landscape, plants and animals came into being. People, plants and animals are all descendants of Ranginui (the sky father) and Papatuanuku (the earth mother) and their children, which means humans are therefore, intrinsically linked with biodiversity. The concepts of mauri (life force), mana (authority/power), tapu (sacred and restricted customs) and wairua (spirit) are important to consider in relation to both people and nature. The tangata whenua (people of the land) have a role as kaitiaki (guardians) to preserve the mauri, wāhi tapu (sacred sites) and natural taonga (treasures) in their area. Kaitiakianga includes active stewardship or guardianship of the land, with Māori traditionally having their own system of resource management to sustain people and natural resources for the future. The relationship between the health of the ecosystem and the wellbeing of the people can be demonstrated by the following phrase: Ko ahau te taiao, ko te taiao, ko ahau – The ecosystem defines my quality of life (Ngāti Wai and Ngāti Whatua). 5110

Mātauranga Māori

Mātauranga Māori describes a body of knowledge held by Māori and could be defined as the ancestral knowledge of Māori, although it is not limited to historical knowledge, but rather continues to develop as the world and Māori culture evolve and change.Mātauranga Māori represents the tradition or continuum of Māori knowledge weaving forward and back through whakapapa.

Mātauranga Māori is fundamental in the way many Māori form a perspective and approach to environmental management, planning, design, policy development implementation, and in resolving complex resource management issues. In the environmental area, the contemporary Māori worldview is still strongly based on traditional cultural beliefs, knowledge, concepts, and values.

Mātauranga Māori has links to western concepts of sustainable management, sustainable development, integration, ecosystems, interconnection of ecosystems, holism and intergenerational equity. While these scientific paradigms all capture aspects of Māturanga Māori it is important to note there is a direct incompatibility between the encompassing holistic nature of Mātauranga Māori and the western scientific norm.

Māori land ownership, uses and values

Māori land has deep spiritual significance for Māori. It is ‘imbued with cultural and spiritual values over and above its value as an economic resource’ and is integral to the expression of mana (authority over a region). 5111

Māori land is not just land that happens to be owned by Māori people. While much land is owned by Māori in fee simple, the term ‘Māori land’ refers to a particular status of land that is distinctly different from all other land ownership in New Zealand. This is due to its form of tenure (multiple, undivided ownership) and its own legislation - Te Ture Whenua Māori (Māori Land) Act 1993. 5112

Māori land also has unique characteristics in terms of ownership. Most Māori land has multiple owners to the extent that shareholders can number into the thousands for a single land block. 5113 This poses unique challenges in making land and resource use decisions. 

Only approximately 6 percent or 1.5 million hectares of New Zealand’s land area remains in Māori ownership. 5114 But, significantly, almost 50 per cent of the total indigenous vegetation remaining on private land is held in Māori title. 5115  Land returned more recently through the Waitangi Tribunal means that Māori have not had the same length of time to develop their land than other landowners. Consequently, Māori-owned lands that are yet to be developed for productive purposes may be disproportionately affected by planning rules seeking indigenous vegetation protection. 5116

Several factors have contributed to this situation including the sale, acquisition or confiscation of much of the fertile lands. The remaining Māori land was less productive and so less economically viable to develop. There are also institutional factors which have influenced the use of Māori land such as the lack of access to capital due to communal ownership. 5117

Economic uses of Māori land are concentrated in the primary industries. By GDP standards, the Māori economy asset base, although increasing in size and value, remains below average. Land-based assets can be hindered in development because of restricted access, limited potential and in some circumstances, difficult management/ownership structures. 5118

 Māori have aspirations to maintain their association with their lands and to provide opportunity for owners to utilise undeveloped land (e.g. for hunting and fishing, papa kainga). Utilising land to exercise values such as kaitiakitanga and manaakitanga is also valued by Māori. 5119

 It is significant that public land now managed for conservation purposes was originally appropriated from Māori by the Crown. Conservation agendas which promote further habitat protection on Māori land, often land adjoining existing protected areas, are affected by this historical legacy of land alienation. 5120 Habitat protection on Māori land, therefore raises issues of equity given the ecological value of remaining habitat has increased due to the cumulative effect of previous clearances. 5121 Efforts at biodiversity protection can create tension between conservation agendas and Māori aspirations for self-governance.

Common methods of environmental protection on private land may not be acceptable to Māori. For example, conservation covenants which are created in perpetuity are difficult to initiate in the context of multiple owners, and foreclose options for future generations which are important to retain for Māori. The Ngā Whenua Rāhui contestable fund is administered by the Department of Conservation and was developed as a response to this issue. The fund provides for habitat protection on Māori land through renewable 25 year Kawenata (conservation covenants) and support for landholders to undertake monitoring and management activities such as pest control. 5122

Understanding Māori perspectives on biodiversity and the relationship of biodiversity with Māori land is important because there are unique circumstances and cultural needs which should be considered in the design of conservation mechanisms. The comparatively high biodiversity value of Māori lands and drive to increase primary production also poses challenges for sustainable development alongside biodiversity management.

Treaty of Waitangi - Te Tiriti o Waitangi and biodiversity

The Treaty of Waitangi (English version) guarantees Māori “respective families and individuals thereof the full exclusive and undisturbed possession of their Lands and Estates Forests Fisheries and other properties which they may collectively or individually possess so long as it is their wish and desire to retain the same in their possession…” 5123 Investigations over the last century however, have revealed that in many instances the Crown’s actions in purchasing Māori land were flawed. Since 1985, the Waitangi Tribunal has conducted hearings into many matters relating to Māori land and the economic and social impacts of land dealings from 1840 onwards. The Tribunal’s account of historical events form the basis of the grievances of Māori addressed through the Treaty negotiations processes.

The current Treaty settlement process has resulted in a number of settlements which range from the large Waikato-Tainui, Ngāi Tahu and Central North Island collective settlements, to smaller settlements such as Hauai, Te Uri o Hau and Ngāti Tūrangitukua.

The nature and amount of redress provided in each settlement package largely depends on the severity of the breaches of the Treaty and their extent, as reflected in the amount of land alienated and how this was achieved (for instance, through confiscation or by purchase). The settlements to date reflect a combination of a variety of redress options. Some early settlements consist solely of financial and commercial redress. Since 1997, most settlement packages have been made up of a Crown Apology, cultural redress and financial and commercial redress. 

How the Treaty of Waitangi should be interpreted and given effect to in modern governance arrangements is an important consideration in relation to biodiversity management. Customary use of natural resources by Māori is a significant aspect of sustaining Mātauranga Māori. Wai 262 was a claim lodged in 1991 by Dell Wihongi, Haana Murray and others, on behalf of Te Rarawa, Ngati Kuri, Ngati Wai, Ngati Porou, Ngati Kahmlgunu and Ngati Koata to rights in respect of mātauranga Māori and indigenous flora and fauna, including intellectual property rights about those flora and fauna. The Waitangi tribunal found that: Iwi and hapū are obliged to act as kaitiaki towards taonga in the environment such as land, natural features, waterways, wāhi tapu, pa sites and flora and fauna within their rohe (tribal areas). It also found that current (resource management) laws and policies and conservation and wildlife laws do not support kaitiaki relationships to the degree required by the Treaty.

Treaty settlements are also changing the relationship of Māori in governance as well as the prospects for Māori owned lands as resourcing becomes available. While the Crown is responsible for upholding the Treaty, considering the rights and interests of Māori in the context of changing circumstances for iwi/hapū will be important for designing appropriate biodiversity measures.








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  2. Stephenson J, 2001. Recognising Rangatiratanga in Resource Management for Māori Land: A Need for a New Set of Arrangements? NZ Journal of Environmental Law 5: 159-193.

  3. Te Ture Whenua Māori (Māori Land) Act 1993. Retrieved from http://www.legislation.govt.nz/act/public/1993/0004/latest/DLM289882.html

  4. Te Puni Kōkiri, 2011. Owner Aspirations Regarding the Utilisation of Māori Land, Te Puni Kokiri April 2011

  5. Harmsworth G, & Awatere S 2013. Indigenous Māori knowledge and perspectives of ecosystems. In Dymond JR ed. Ecosystem services in New Zealand – conditions and trends. Manaaki Whenua Press, Lincoln, New Zealand.

  6. Stephenson J, 2001. Recognising Rangatiratanga in Resource Management for Māori Land: A Need for a New Set of Arrangements? NZ Journal of Environmental Law 5: 159-193

  7. Wilson G, and Memon P, 2010. The contested environmental governance of Māori-owned native forests in South Island, Aotearoa/New Zealand Land Use Policy, 27(4):1197-1209) 201

  8. Kingi T, 2008. 'Ahuwhenua – Māori land and agriculture - Trusts and incorporations', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Retrieved from: http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/ahuwhenua-maori-land-and-agriculture/page3

  9. Te Puni Kōkiri, 2015. Māori Economy Report 2013, Te Puni Kokiri April 2015

  10. Te Puni Kōkiri, 2011. Owner Aspirations Regarding the Utilisation of Māori Land, Te Puni Kokiri April 2011

  11. Matunga H, 2000. Urban ecology, tangata whenua and the colonial city. In G. H. Stewart & M. E. Ignatieva (Eds.), Urban biodiversity and ecology as a basis for holistic planning and design: Proceedings of a workshop held at Lincoln University, 28-29 October 2000 (pp. 65-71). Christchurch, New Zealand: Wickliffe Press and Coombes B & Hill S, 2005. “Na whenua, na Tuhoe. Ko D.o.C. te partner”—Prospects for Comanagement of Te Urewera National Park. Society & Natural Resources 18:2

  12. Davis P & Cocklin C, 2001. Protecting habitats on private land: Perspectives from Northland, New Zealand. Science for Conservation 181. 69p

  13. Department of Conservation, 2017. Nga Whenua Rahui Fund: http://www.doc.govt.nz/getinvolved/funding/nga-whenua-rahui/nga-whenua-rahui-fund/

  14. Treaty of Waitangi- Te Tiriti o Waitangi 1840

Last updated at 12:18PM on April 11, 2018