Review: Māori and the Environment

REVIEW: Māori and the Environment: Kaitiaki. Edited by Rachael Selby, Pātaka Moore and Malcolm Mulholland, Huia Publishers, 2010, 372 pp., ISBN: 978-1-86969-402-9.[1]

Charles Dawson[2]

The nineteen essays in this book are a compelling combination of outrage, inspiration, and positive action. While the authors attend to resource management policy and practice, the book goes to the heart of Māori culture and tradition: as many of the authors note, without contact with the remnant bush and birds, and the transmission of knowledge, Māori risk losing connection with the places that foster tribal identity. Dozens of books and reports (most recently the Waitangi Tribunal´s Wai 262 report) have warned of the effects of biodiversity loss on culture. This book gives the nation no room for complacency in this regard, reiterating Darrell Posey´s explication of the inextricably linked worlds of indigenous knowledge and biodiversity.

The book contains three sections: the concept and practice of kaitiaki, freshwater issues, and the heritage and the protection context. The introduction describes kaitiakitanga as ‘an inherent obligation we have to our tūpuna and to our mokopuna; an obligation to safeguard and care for our environment for future generations. It is a link between the past and the future, the old and the new, between the taonga of the natural environment and tangata whenua.’

Each essay consolidates this link between past and future. Judging from the calibre of the essays  and the authors’ sound grasp of their iwi concerns and traditions and the world of policy-making and resource management, the bicultural reality of local environments will endure. The writers represent the new generation and are impressive, articulate and determined to remain vigilant. And the book is generous in calling for vigilance from the wider community. As the back cover notes:

No one can read this book without feeling incensed that we have allowed the New Zealand environment to deteriorate to the extent that is revealed here. It is not too late to undo the damage. We must all adapt to the kaupapa of kaitiakitanga (guardianship) to preserve what we have…. New Zealand’s reputation as a clean green environment is under threat. We ignore the messages in this book at our peril. This is a book for all New Zealanders.

Seen in the context of the emergence of resource management policy and the Māori  ‘cultural renaissance’ of recent decades, Kaitiaki demonstrates the hard-won multi-skill set of Māori tradition, resource management policy, and bicultural practice; it’s this sort of  weave that makes New Zealand such an important place for the world to learn from. Many New Zealanders will also learn from this book.

Many of the authors record their dissatisfaction with the state of freshwater quality, the actions of local government (rubbish dumps and untreated effluent come in for special mention), or regard the incessant spread of urbanisation as forces that eroded tribal landscapes, tribal memories and tribal mana. So in Malcolm Mulholland’s piece,  ‘The Death of the Manawatū River’ you know he will pull no punches, but his research into the municipal activities of the 1950 to 1990s details the consistent, polite petitions of local Māori pitted against a local government apparatus that was not, for the authors, geared or designed to take their concerns into account.

The book’s section on freshwater should be widely consulted, for as Gail Tipa observes, ‘Landscapes and societies are shaped, in part, by the quality, quantity and form of water movement.’ Tipa continues her role as a key developer of bicultural models for freshwater assessment that stand up to scrutiny in both Māori and non-Māori worlds. One of the volume’s appealing features is its insistence on the local, and the writers´ generous sharing of their experience of restoration projects. Huhana Smith’s account of wetland restoration near Kuku Beach, Margaret Forster’s essay on wetland restoration near Wairoa, and Te Rina Warren’s description of a possible model for hapū and iwi engagement and restoration in Rangitīkei, serve as beacons of possibility in other regions. In each of those cases the local Māori communities have stepped up to propose and foster restoration projects, collaborating with a wide range of experts, stakeholders and funding sources to overcome perceived limitations at the local government level.

The authors do not demonstrate a great deal of support from local government. It seems the positive stories are few and far between. According to Smith, ‘Kaitiaki navigate considerable complexity in the resource management process to maintain and restore cultural and spiritual values in landscape, but only when these attributes are recognized, reconciled with, and respected can they be protected.’ Yet it is also evident that central government has provided some suport. Lisa Kanawa places these questions in a wide strategic context by bringing climate change impacts for iwi into view, while a subtle essay on 1080 poison-control of possums aims to move through and beyond polarised positions to promote dialogue.

Tūhoe scholars Rangi Mataamua and Pou Temara acknowledge the winds of change that have separated all but five per cent of Tūhoe from the tribal forests; their honest questions for Tūhoe as to what this separation means show the work required for Māori as well as non-Māori. Their questions have national relevance. Veronica Tawhai’s essay on consultation with the many who live outside their tribal rohe speaks to the nature and effect of dislocation on consultation processes.

In an essay on global heritage management criteria, Sir Mason Durie proffers the five indigenous-derived principles of connectedness, mauri, continuity, contextual significance and reciprocity as crucial elements for ICOMOS[3] heritage management policy at the local and international level.  As this book (and the Wai 262 report) makes clear, a concerted effort is needed.

Māori and the Environment: Kaitiaki  is a powerful reminder of kaitiakitanga as a guiding force for Māori in Aotearoa New Zealand today. It is an engaging handbook for students of resource management, history, Māori studies, local government and voluntary community conservation groups. But perhaps more crucially, it is a handbook for aspiring kaitiaki, because it shares positive accounts of iwi-led restoration projects. This book could have been a welter of anger, or despair. But often the communities (clearly led in some cases by the authors themselves) have worked to design—and carry out—projects that restore both mana and manu, for the good of all.

In their cycles of return, restoration and renewal, these projects inspire communities, Māori and non-Māori, to explore the potential of collaboration and self-determination. Given the leadership evident in this volume, I expect a second edition will feature even more accounts of positive projects for iwi, and I hope that wider communities will be involved in ways that honour the spirit demonstrated in this book.

[1] RRP $55 (in November 2011 this was on sale direct from for $45).

[2] Charles, a co-editor of ENNZ, has trained in literature, cultural geography, te reo Māori and the martial arts. His recent work included facilitation in the Waitangi Tribunal´s Wai 262 inquiry, and he is currently abroad with his family.

[3] International Council on Monuments and Sites.