Māori and conservation

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Mt. Taranaki
Mt. Taranaki which is revered by the Maori, was recently granted legal status as a person

The Māori people have a strong and changing conservation ethic from the time of their discovery and settlement of New Zealand until the present day and is closely tied to spiritual beliefs.[1]

Māori settlement[edit]

The Maori people first arrived in New Zealand beginning in 950 AD. At the time, the biodiversity of New Zealand was much greater than the current state with the only mammals being three species of bats. As a result, a large and diverse bird population inhabited the forests of the land.[2] The largest species of eagle known, Haast's eagle, was native to the South Island. The Maori people would have adverse impacts, hunting the flightless moa to extinction and clearing large swathes of forests, both to make way for settlements and to light fires in order to more easily hunt birds. Approximately half the native forests of New Zealand were destroyed within the first several hundred years. Without their primary foodsource (the moa) Haast's Eagle would go extinct sometime in the 15th century. Most devastating to the local bird populations, the Maori people introduced the Polynesian Rat to New Zealand. Most likely, the rats were brought as a food source by the Maori settlers, but would escape and soon infest the island. This was especially harmful to the avian species of New Zealand which had evolved no behavioural defence against the rats having long had few, if any, natural predators.[3]

The Maori's daily life was dictated by the season. The planting season was in October and the harvest in February. Trapping rats and birds was commonly practised by the forest tribes. Despite a relatively small population, the tribes claimed ownership of the entire island, periodically visiting land to substantiate claims. For the Maori, the land was not merely a resource, but a connection to ancestors.[4] The mana of the tribe was strongly associated with the lands of that tribe. From this came the Maori proverb "Man perishes, but the land remains." The Maori beliefs included Atua, invisible spirits connected to natural phenomena such as rainbows, trees, or stones. Sacred pools were known as wai tapu. It is the policy position of the New Zealand Green Party to return wai tapu to the iwi, as some are currently under control of the Conservation Estate[5]. Large number of New Zealand pigeons flocking to feed on the fruit of the toromiro is an indicator of the mana of the forest. Because of this, this bird is generally only hunted for special occasions; the feathers are worn by Maori women of high social status.

Rāhui is a form of protection of natural resources that Maori implemented as a conservation measure as well as other reasons.

Contemporary viewpoints[edit]

A Cultural Health Index for waterways has been developed that links Western science and the cultural knowledge from Māori about stream health.[6]

Maori belief dictates that Tane, the god of forest and birds, created the first man.

In Maori society, special status is granted to those known as the tangata whenua 'people of the land', or Maori who have resided in the local district for many generations. This is in contrast with the Maori with no ancestral connection to the land, known variously as tangata haere mai 'people who have come in', rawaho 'outsiders' or tauiwi 'foreigners'.[4] Depending on the remoteness of the community, the percentage of tangate haere mai can vary from as few as 5% to in excess of 70%.Today, the term tangata whenua often is used to broadly differentiate between Māori and other groups.

Also important to Maori's relation with nature was the concept of tapu, a dangerous energy that had to be properly nullified through ritual. Every natural resource had this, meaning, at least in theory, exploitation of natural resources was limited by tapu.[4]

Maori land laws, which dictate equal partitioning of inheritances among children, have had the effect of preserving the land by making individual land blocks too small for economic use. Compounded with this, Maori of the older generation are culturally disinclined to sell their shares to developers, making the primary economic activity on these lands cutting firewood or cultivating small gardens.[4]

Maori blame European prohibition laws, many of which were implemented during the colonial era, for usurping the mana and contributing to the declining biodiversity of New Zealand.[4] In particular, Maori pointed to the continuing decline to the New Zealand Pigeon in spite of prohibitions on hunting, claiming Tane was removing them as they were no longer being used by the people. Regaining responsibility for the environment of New Zealand is seen not only as important from a conservation standpoint, but critical to truly be tangata whenua.

Māori Ecological Knowledge[edit]

A team of researchers studied Maori traditional ecological knowledge of the Tuatara, a reptile native to New Zealand through oral questioning of elders. This is particularly important because the Tuatara is a living fossil, being the last living member of its taxonomic order. The Tuatara had been driven extinct on the main island and exists only on 37 offshore islands. The elders' testimony correctly matched existing scientific knowledge regarding the physiology, diet, range, and behavior . The researchers concluded that "In at least some cases, traditional ecological knowledge may persist as species decline and may serve as a valuable source of ecological information for conservation." They additionally discovered through the testimony seven more sites that the Tuatara inhabited in recent times.[7]

Culturally, the Tuatara are generally considered a bad omen, though 20% of elders report Tuatara being kept as pets. Tuatara, which have a primitive "third eye", and a long natural lifespan, are believed to have great knowledge and ability to see hidden things. Conversely, elders of the Ngai Wai Iwi report putting the reptiles under their shirts to stay cool. In the paper, Ramstad concludes "Our current understanding of Maori attitudes toward tuatara needs revising to accommodate this heterogeneity in traditional ecological knowledge. Not all Maori fear tuatara, not all iwi subsisted historically on tuatara, and the cultural role of tuatara differs over time and among iwi."[7]

Legal Status of Geographic Locations[edit]

Today, approximately one third of New Zealand is under the mandate of the Department of Conservation.[1] Whanganui River was recognized as having the legal status as a person by the government of New Zealand in 2017, ending that countries longest running litigation, which had begun 160 years ago. Prior to European settlement, the river was important for being easily navigable, which allowed widespread settlements through the Whanganui River valley. Prior to European colonization, this region was the most densely populated on the North Island.[8] Regarding this status, the lead negotiator for the Whanganui Tribe, Gerrard Albert, stated “The reason we have taken this approach is because we consider the river an ancestor and always have...We can trace our genealogy to the origins of the universe, and therefore rather than us being masters of the natural world, we are part of it. "[9] Two legal guardians, one from the tribe and one from the New Zealand government, are appointed. A Maori MP, Adtian Rurawhe, stated that "Froma Whanganui viewpoint the wellbeing of the river is directly linked to the well-being of the people," referring to the mana of the tangata whenua.

Mount Taranki has been granted similar legal status later in 2017, with eight tribes and the New Zealand government acting as legal guardians. The Minister for treaty negotiations, Andrew Little, said of the decision "Today’s agreements are a major milestone in acknowledging the grievances and hurt from the past as the Taranaki iwi experienced some of the worst examples of Crown behaviour in the 19th century".[10] Albert hopes that these decisions will set a precedent for other Maori tribes to grant legal personhood to geographic locations. Part of what is now Tongariro National Park was given to The Crown by the Maori chief Te Heuheu Tukino IV to ensure its protection.

Haka Kereruu[edit]

The haka is a traditional dance, typically, the Haka Kereruu is typically performed to emphasize the relationship between the people with the birds and forest. During it, New Zealand pigeon is often served. The ecological devastation is in reference to European colonists. The exact words vary across different tribes.[4]

Maori English
Ka horehore, ka horehore They are barren, they are barren
Ka aroha te puke e tu iho nei I am saddened by the hill that surround me
Ka horehore, ka horehore They are barren, they are barren
He aha i hore ai? Why is it so bare?
He kore kai pea Perhaps because there is no food to be had
A me aha? What shall we do?
Me kai pea ko nga raho o (name of a chief) Let's consider eating the testicles of (name of chief)
Ka horehore, ka horehore They are barren, they are barren
Ā neke neke hia Alas, keep moving, keep moving
Ā, ç Alas

An alternative version also exists.[4]

Maori English
He kumara kai hamuhamu Only the fernroots remain
Ko te ehu o te kupu nei na The essential word implies
Kia hoki kau atu, ina te tinaki That we return to till the soil
Taia mai, ka mate, taia mai We haul it back, no good, we haul it back
Ka horehore, ka horehore Absolutely barren, absolutely barren
Ka mate te puke tu iho nei The hills beyond me are barren
Ka horehore, ka horehore Absolutely barren, absolutely barren
He kotahi te kete i kimihia We have only but one basket
Kei te kore, kore rawa aku iwi There was virtually nothing for my people
Ki te mahi kai - To prepare for a feast.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Ruru, Jacinta. "Reversing the Decline in New Zealand's Biodiversity" (PDF). Policy Quarterly. 13: 65–71.
  2. ^ results, search (2002-09-01). The Maori of New Zealand. Minneapolis: Lerner Pub Group. ISBN 9780822506652.
  3. ^ Hogan, C. Michael (2009). N. Stromberg, ed. Yellow-eyed Penguin: Megadyptes antipodes. GlobalTwitcher.com. Archived from the original on 2011-10-05.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g Timoti, Puke; Lyver, Philip O'B; Matamua, Rangi; Jones, Christopher J.; Tahi, Brenda L. (2017). "A representation of a Tuawhenua worldview guides environmental conservation". Ecology and Society. 22 (4). doi:10.5751/ES-09768-220420. ISSN 1708-3087.
  5. ^ "Māori Issues Policy". Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand. 2016-04-12. Retrieved 2018-06-08.
  6. ^ Tipa, Gail; Laurel Teirney (June 2003). A Cultural Health Index for Stream and Waterways. ME475. Wellington: Ministry for the Environment. ISBN 0-478-24092-9.
  7. ^ a b Ramstad, Kristina M.; Nelson, N. J.; Paine, G.; Beech, D.; Paul, A.; Paul, P.; Allendorf, F. W.; Daugherty, C. H. (2007-04-01). "Species and Cultural Conservation in New Zealand: Maori Traditional Ecological Knowledge of Tuatara". Conservation Biology. 21 (2): 455–464. doi:10.1111/j.1523-1739.2006.00620.x. ISSN 1523-1739.
  8. ^ "New Zealand Recognizes Whanganui River as 'Living Person'". Time. Retrieved 2018-06-09.
  9. ^ Roy, Eleanor Ainge (2017-03-16). "New Zealand river granted same legal rights as human being". the Guardian. Retrieved 2018-06-07.
  10. ^ Roy, Eleanor Ainge (2017-12-22). "New Zealand gives Mount Taranaki same legal rights as a person". the Guardian. Retrieved 2018-06-07.

Further reading[edit]

  • Merata Kawharu (2002). Whenua: Managing our resources. Auckland: Reed. ISBN 0-7900-0858-0.

External links[edit]