Māori environmental values and assessments of ecological effects

A resprouted pūriri tree. Photo/Paula Godfrey, December 2021

I never imagined as a small child that growing up I’d be an ecologist, deciding the fate of trees we drove past, and maybe one day, the very trees I climbed. One of my favorite trees is a silver ponga (Cyathea dealbata) near our whare (house). The photograph below shows me as an 8-year-old sitting in my ponga tree. For several months a year, I couldn’t climb the ponga while it grew its new fronds. We were strictly not allowed to cause any tree to die without good reason and a blessing from Papatūānuku. As a child, my whānau and I spent a lot of time up trees and exploring the the lush bush of north Auckland.

Sitting in my favourite ponga, 2002.

As an ecologist working in botany, I get asked all the time what my favourite tree/plant is, and the answer changes depending on what’s looking particularly beautiful that week. Are the kōwhai (Sophora spp.) flowering? Have the kauri (Agathis australis) got new growth? Have the māhoe (Melicytus ramiflorus) produced another bumper crop? These are the factors that influence my answer.

Take for example the pūriri tree (Vitex lucens). Pūriri has significant ecological value in its own right and is often my favorite tree. It produces flowers almost all-year round for tuī to feed on. It allows kereru to eat its berries and it even hosts NZ’s largest moth species (the massive green pūriri moths, Aenetus virescens).

These trees are impossible to age, as the old specimens have hollow trunks and twisted hard wood, making traditional ageing techniques very difficult. It’s thought that pūriri are the longest living plant in NZ. As part of pūriri tree’s life cycle, they typically start looking sick, fall over and ‘resprout’ by producing roots along their trunk that sink into the ground. By doing so they form large areas of canopy from a single trunk, as now their trunk is prostrate. The photo above shows a pūriri tree which has been cut down and resprouted. The hollow trunk is visible on the right of the photo.

Pūriri holds ecological values but also holds significant tangata whenua values. For me, as a Ngāpuhi (Northland iwi within the pūriri distribution area), I have a strong emotional connection to pūriri that is intertwined with its ecological value. How can that be?

Well, pūriri is used as an infusion to wash the bodies of our tūpāpaku (deceased) and adorned with pūriri leaves as they decomposed. The bones are later gathered up and scraped clean, then placed within the pūriri tree in a kete. These days, we simply adorn our tūpāpaku with pūriri and lay them to rest within Papatūānuku. This is what my brothers, myself and Māmā did with our Pāpā. Learn more about this practice here.

Cutting down a pūriri tree is like digging up a church cemetery without exhuming the bodies first, and in many cases, even today, this would happen without notification to the tīpuna (ancestors) of those who lay there.

Laying Pāpa to rest. I am middle left. Note the pūriri leaves surrounding the body. Photo/ John Malcom, 2006.

The issue of Māori values and the environment was brought to media attention (again) last year with the new marina works in Pūtiki bay, Waiheke Island, and the 2020 protests over Ihumātao, the historic stonefields in Auckland en-route to become a major housing development. Although Ihumātao was not a specific environmental issue, environment and ecology is undeniably intertwined.

As an ecologist working for a private consultancy, or even a government organisation, such as Waka Kotahi, or a local council, you’ll come across new developments (or redevelopments) seeking resource consent. To gain resource consent you need to demonstrate as an ecologist that the environment is not going to be degraded, and that post-development you’ll end up with a ‘net ecological gain’. This is called an Assessment of Environmental Effects (AEE).

There is a recommendation to include tangata whenua rights in AEE’s (as per the Section 8 of the Resource Management Act 1991). In practice they are kept as separate documents, with no cross-over between cultural effects and environmental effects. How can AEE’s integrate tangata whenua rights as part of an ecological assessment and fulfil the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi?

A sign at the Ihumātao protests. Photo/ RNZ, Dan Cook, March 2019.

In 1998 Stuart Waddel thought about the same question. He undertook a study to recognise the indigenous rights in AEE’s and how to integrate them. He found that applicants for resource consents have no statutory requirements to contact tangata whenua when proposing a new development, it is only ‘good practice’ to do so. The AEE’s are used to inform the consenting authority (local councils) on the potential effects that the activity will have on the environment. Therefore, the contact with tangata whenua needs to be prior to the AEE being produced, not after. One good example of intergrating tangata whenua into an AEE is on the MacKays to Peka Peka Project by NZTA.

Recognition of kaitiakitanga (guardianship) in the AEE’s is when it comes to identification of potential environmental impacts as important for achieving better environmental outcomes for all. The environmental values are interconnected with the mauri (essence/life force) of the area, and links spiritual, genealogical, cultural and physical values. Recognition of kaitiakitanga in AEE’s (because it’s respected within tikanga Māori (cultural practice)), cannot be defined by local councils or government as that would mean they are speaking for kaitiakitanga, which is reserved for tangata whenua to speak to.

Waddel noted that Pākehā and Māori have long held differing views on the values of our environment, which has lead to contentious issues throughout the colonising history of NZ. Māori value the earth as a precious gift and follow strict rules on kaitiakitanga through kaitiaki (looking after) our environment in order to receive the life giving resources it provides. Māori also value different food sources to Pākehā, such as kahikatea berries. Pākehā tend to view the whenua (land) as a resource ripe for exploitation.
Ensuring that the proposed development area will be able to be sustainably used for future generations and for mahinga kai (food gathering) is a meaningful environmental outcome that demonstrates that the environment will retain its mauri.

Shaking the kahikatea berries down for eating, 2005.

It is more important than ever to carry out pre-project consultation with tangata whenua groups (iwi, hapu, rūnanga) and listen to what they have to say. The real environmental outcomes are achieved when the korero (conversation) is received by the development team with a learning mindset, and tangata whenua recommendations are implemented early in the project. If you’re a bit stuck on where to start, the Bay of Plenty Regional Council has a good resource for iwi engagement on their website.

Iwi engagement in AEE’s are beneficial for all. If AEE’s are done right, those hundred year-old pūriri trees would be here to stay and not replaced with a car park. If cultural considerations were implemented decades ago, we would have a much more natural environment, greater climate change resilience and many more trees to climb in our neighbourhoods.

If you want to gain a deeper understanding of kaitiakitanga, I highly recommend reading the book Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer who shares a Native American perspective which is similar to te ao Māori worldviews.

Citation: Waddel, S. R. (1998). Restoring Kaitiakitanga: evaluating the recognition of indigenous rights in assessment of environmental effects (Doctoral dissertation, Lincoln University).

The author Paula Godfrey is a postgraduate student in the Postgraduate Diploma in Applied Science taught at Lincoln University. This article was written as an assessment for ECOL 608 Research Methods in Ecology.

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