By Laura Goodall 27/02/2016

Tangata Whenua — People of the Land — is the name that Māori call themselves as indigenous New Zealanders, and likely signifies the deep roots they have to this green and blue place of jagged peaks and valleys.  The land sustains us. It carries paths to the future as well as ties to the past: whatungarongaro te tangata, toitū te whenua – people disappear, but the land remains.  But what shape will it be in when we’re gone?  

For Māori, the importance of kaitiakitanga (loosely translated as ‘guardianship’) is told to each new generation, to ensure that they too become kaitiaki.  And after 800 years of kaitiakitanga, Māori communities likely have the most complete knowledge of our land and its native inhabitants.

Amanda BlackDr Amanda Black (Tūhoe, Whakatōhea, Te Whānau-a-Apanui) plays a role in recognising this knowledge as co-kaihautū (co-leader) of a Māori-focused strand of the Biological Heritage National Science Challenge. This Challenge aims to protect New Zealand’s unique plants and animals from invading pests and non-native species.

From Whakatane, Amanda headed south to study geology and then environmental science at the University of Otago, followed by a PhD in soil chemistry at Lincoln University – where she’s now Lecturer at the Bio-Protection Research Centre.  

Here, she tells us about bringing together Māori knowledge and science as part of this new Challenge:

What was your journey in incorporating Māoritanga in your scientific research?

“The journey to get to the point where you can start to consider Māoritanga in your discipline is really a process of thought maturity. You go to university, you train 7-10 years in your chosen scientific discipline and you start to gain confidence. Some time later, a few more papers, and you start to critically think about some the underlying philosophies that perhaps constrain some of the thought processes.

“It is when this happens that you start to question how you can improve upon the field. The true catalyst is when you encounter a particular problem, or context that is close to home, you start to piece together the different knowledge systems and approaches (and sometimes not that different!) to try and answer the question.”

Do you happen to use any tikanga into your work?

“It depends on what I am working on at the time. If it is lab work dealing with ubiquitous bacteria, or glasshouse trials using pasture, there’s nothing special I do to prepare myself before working. However, if I am working in the forest then I always stop to take in the forest – to feel the connection and the connectedness. I have a huge respect for the forest, those huge ancient kauri trees and also Rimu and Puriri have seen much in their lifetime – including Moas! I’m always careful in the forest to make as little impact as possible. If I take soil to study, then only take as much as is required and strictly any soil not used for analysis should be returned to where it came from.”

Why do you think it’s important we consider Mātauranga Māori as well as science in tackling New Zealand’s problems?

“Mātauranga Māori is about knowledge and how that knowledge is applied. Like other indigenous knowledge, it is acquired through centuries, and in some cases millennia, of familiarity with that land and the flora and fauna that inhabit it. There is much to learn from indigenous people, and problems are nearly always easier to solve when many different angles are considered.  To not consider Mātauranga Māori in certain fields of research would be almost irresponsible, especially if the goal was a shared one.

“For the most part, science operates in quite a narrow spectrum of debate, much is debated but it is still a narrow spectrum. Sometimes when you read articles in those high hitting journals such as Nature, the obviousness of their findings is ironic – especially when you have had conversations with kaumātua and kuia (elders) describing the relationships between the physical and biological world. But apparently you need some person from some lab overseas to validate it.”

What areas are we starting with for the Biological Heritage National Science Challenge? What will you be looking at and trying to solve/contain?

“There are three standalone Māori-focused projects and the remainder of the flagship projects have Mātauranga Māori embedded in them as is appropriate. In the project I am specifically involved with, ‘Māori solutions to risks and threats to taonga species’, we will discuss three broad areas – conservation, primary production and freshwater.

Credit: Flickr/russellstreet“We can’t cover everything and so we must pick certain species or ecosystems where we can make a difference in 5 years – the length of the project. The case of kauri dieback is one that is very public and political, yet there are also other species such as pōhutukawa and mānuka that are at risk of biological incursions such as myrtle rust. The effect of this incursion would devastate populations of pōhutukawa, including the rare Bartlett’s rātā with only a handful of individuals left, but this fungal disease would also have economic impacts on the mānuka honey industry.

“The most recent example of the potentially devastating effect of another unwanted species was the Tau fly as picked up in a routine monitoring exercise in January. If the Tau fly was to establish itself in Auckland and the upper North Island this would potentially threaten kamokamo – a much-loved squash and very much a taonga species.

“In the case of freshwater biosecurity issues, this is a huge and underfunded area of research. Many hapū (tribes) and Iwi (nations) are concerned for their tuna (eel) as it is threatened by a barrage of issues. I suspect tuna will be on the agenda.

“There are so many species and so it is a matter of deciding what to focus on. Do we focus only on a species, which is typically the biosecurity science paradigm, or do we consider the ecosystem approach, which is what Mātauranga usually comes from?”

What science do we already know, and what information is missing?

“There is much we don’t know, including basic ecological information and population dynamics. How can we assess how a species is being impacted by a disease or pest, when we don’t even know baseline information?”

What Mātauranga Māori will be integrated into tackling these problems?  Is there any sensitivity around this traditional knowledge?

“Many hapū and Iwi in Northland are using their knowledge to carry out environmental assessments of their ngahere (forests). They have developed cultural health indicators and in some cases have solutions to prevent or manage diseased trees and are actively using these methods to manage their ngahere.

“There is much sensitivity around Traditional Knowledge/Mātauranga Māori and it is specific to a hapū or Iwi. The unresolved matter of the Waitangi Tribunal Claim known as Wai 262 Flora and Fauna is fundamental to many of the issues around knowledge and taonga species.

“Many Māori communities are also very wary of biopiracy and exploitation of their knowledge and their taonga. Geneticists and molecular biologists will often find it difficult to research in this space unless there has been some prior arrangement of intellectual property and mana enhancement agreements – and many ‘face to face’ meetings.  In Māoridom, fronting up to the community to discuss your research is paramount, you cannot hide behind your laptop or in your lab.”

What has been done so far and what needs to be done next as part of a joint effort?

“The Biological Heritage National Science Challenge is taking this very seriously and has the kahui Māori (committee) advising on cultural issues and providing an overarching strategy.  For me it is the most pro-active group I have been involved with and it is attempting a shift in the way we as scientists traditionally approached research development.

“The Challenge has been evolving and learning in this space and so it has developed an open mind to allowing Māori to develop their research ideas in a ‘mainstream’ research funding mechanism. It’s constantly evolving to the developments and needs of the research community, and any pushback usually comes from external sources rather than the Challenge itself.

“If it stays true to its intent and vision, then we have achieved something that hasn’t ever been done in mainstream research organisations – the meaningful inclusion of Mātauranga Māori to achieve the desired outcomes.”

How might new information from scientific research feed back into indigenous communities?

“Partnership that has formed from transparent communication and relationship establishment – that’s how information can feed back into communities.

“If you want your research to be taken up by communities, then from the onset you need to be in partnership with them. Anything else is kind of retrofitting and in danger of never getting a look in even if it may offer beneficial outcomes.”

Tēnā rawa atu koe, Amanda, for sharing your story.