Indigenous knowledge: Māori responses to biosecurity threats

What is science?

This is a big question that most people, including scientists, may never consider. Science is a huge part of our day to day lives and, today, is considered the most reliable and accurate system for learning about our world. But does this mean that it is the only system for learning, and is it the only reliable system? Indigenous peoples all over the globe have spent centuries living and learning in their home environments. Over this time, they have built enormous collections of information, including medicine, food, and historic events related directly to their environments. As science has grown in its dominance around the world, many of these systems have been suppressed and disregarded under the effects of colonisation. In New Zealand, this can be seen just as clearly as in any other colonised nation (USA, Canada, Australia, New Caledonia etc.).

Lincoln University-based researcher Amanda Black, with her colleagues, wrote a paper in 2018 that discusses two cases in New Zealand where Māori knowledge, also known as mātauranga Māori, has been used on equal footing with western science. Mātauranga Māori is the common name given to the total knowledge accumulated by Māori in New Zealand by living in and with their environment for generations. Under the pressures of colonisation Māori knowledge holders have been suppressed, rejected, and ignored for generations by the western world. More recently, those in the western science world have begun to lean on mātauranga more and more, allowing Māori knowledge more room at the table.

Kauri walking track, Coromandel: Photo © by Sarah Fraser (

In the paper, the researchers used two examples of recent biosecurity threats that have been better controlled by working with Māori. These two threats are Myrtle rust and Kauri Dieback.

Kauri dieback is a disease that affects Kauri of all ages and sizes, ultimately resulting in the tree’s death. Myrtle rust is a fungal disease that affects members of the myrtle plant family, which includes native manuka and kanuka trees. Both of these are cases where native plants that are highly valued by Māori (Taonga species) are at risk from invasive species.

Kauri dieback has been studied over the last 13 years, and its origin remains unknown. It was declared a pest species in New Zealand in 2008 and has since become a target species for many groups all across the country aiming to preserve and protect these ancient trees. MPI (Ministry of Primary Industries), DOC (Department of Conservation), regional councils, and independent research groups have all began researching treatments and creating strategies to control the spread.

Most of the land where Kauri is today is tribal land under Iwi (Māori Tribe) management. This meant that Māori were able to have an active role in protection from the beginning, something that has been rare in the past. Initially, rāhui were established. This is a traditional restriction of access that Māori use when an area is under threat.

After this, Māori were able to further use traditional approaches that involved looking at the whole forest to understand and monitor Kauri, not just the tree and disease alone. One example of the advantages that Māori and Mātauranga provide to restoration is where they start from. In a crisis such as this, traditional science will set out to learn as much as it can about an issue, such as forest layout, genetics, affected species. For something like Kauri, Māori already know most of this information. They already know which species are most closely related, and most likely to be affected. Māori already know where the oldest Kauri are, where the most remote stands are, and usually prove to be better at identifying when an ecosystem is affected. These approaches set a new precedent for Māori to be involved in a partnership with western science.

Students in Ngahere (Forest) with Māori Kaumatua: photo by Marcus-Rongowhitiao Shadbolt

Myrtle rust has also shown the value of connecting science and Māori. In early 2017, Māori organisations began to prepare for this disease to arrive on our shores after it had been detected in Australia. It, unfortunately, arrived here in mid-2017, and spread to most parts of the North Island.

This rust affects many more species than Kauri dieback does, and among those, are key rongoā plants. Rongoā is, in short, Māori traditional medicine that uses specific native plants. Among those, manuka is one of the most vulnerable plants. This is the tree involved in making manuka honey and is one of the most well-known examples of rongoā not just in New Zealand, but around the world.

In this case, Māori were trained to identify and report Myrtle rust on the ground, and have played a key role at all levels of the response to the disease. In similar ways to the Kauri dieback response, Māori already have a huge source of fundamental knowledge about these ecosystems to draw on. In this case, it was recommended by Te Tira Whakamataki, a Māori not-for-profit environmental group, that Maori were best placed to participate in management/eradication strategies. This is due to the unique perspective on environmental management that Māori bring. For example, on the ground workers who were initially trained realised that by planting ramarama, a species affected severely and early by the rust, they could spot when an area had recently been affected. Māori have continued to play a fundamental role in this response to date. If you want to read some of the latest work check it out here.

Myrtle rust infection: Photo CC0 1.0 by Scot Nelson, Flickr.

“Ko au te whenua, ko te whenua, ko au” – “I am the land and the land is me”.

The special relationship between Māori and their environment is clearly laid out in both these examples. We can see the drive and passion that comes from generations living in their environment, not apart from it, that leads to an intimate understanding of the natural world.

Mātauranga Māori provides a lens into another way of understanding and protecting our environment, a viewpoint that differs significantly from that of traditional western science. While western science is useful in learning the intricate details of an issue, species, or system, Mātauranga Māori already knows a lot of this. It would be irresponsible for scientists and government to ignore these systems in favour of their own when it appears that in all regards indigenous peoples and their systems work just as well if not better in many cases.

The UN has in recent years published more and more on these issues and has announced a number of recommendations to governments, explaining how and why they should work with indigenous communities. They outline how it is only through the joining and cooperation of Indigenous peoples with science that the best results can be achieved, and our environment safeguarded against the future threats to come.

Marcus Shadbolt is a postgraduate student at Lincoln University. He wrote this article as part of his assessment in ECOL608: Research Methods in Ecology.

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