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What we can learn from Te Ao Māori

We have much to learn from Te Ao Māori, the Māori world view - not least learning to live as one with nature rather than believing we can control ecosystems, writes Rod Oram

Over recent years, Te Ao Māori, the Māori world view, has been turning up in more and more traditionally Pākeha places such as the Reserve Bank, the 11 National Science Challenges and most recently in the Primary Sector Council’s vision and strategy document.

Even more importantly, these and other institutions are taking a great interest in Te Ao Māori not just to help Māori strengthen their culture and communities. They are starting to assimilate it to improve themselves. They see wisdom in the M­āori understanding that we humans are inherently a dependent part of all living systems. We are not the dominant force with free rein to exploit without limits the natural world.

In contrast, the Western world view of dominion over nature was certainly a factor that has helped drive humankind’s vast expansion of knowledge, technology, economies, resource extraction and pollution over the past few centuries. But there is absolutely no doubt in science that we have hit the limits of such exploitation. One of the best of many guides to this is the Planetary Boundaries research of the Stockholm Resilience Centre.

And so too are we breaching many of these boundaries. “New Zealand’s growth model...has started to show its environmental limits, with increased greenhouse gas emissions, freshwater contamination and threats to biodiversity,” the OECD wrote in 2017 in its once-a-decade environmental report on us.

“Addressing GHG emissions from agriculture, and especially dairy farming, should remain a priority...[and] the need to further explore the economic opportunities that more sustainable uses could yield.”

Above all: “Developing a long-term vision for a transition towards a low-carbon, greener economy would help New Zealand defend the 'green' reputation it has acquired at an international level.”

But our understanding of these challenges, and the language to express it, has yet to advance enough, here and abroad. Stewardship has displaced dominion in many people’s thinking. Yet that still leaves us with the hubris of believing humans can control ecosystems. In fact, living systems are so vastly complicated we have to learn how to watch, listen, learn and respond to them. Then as they recover, so will we.

Our oneness with nature is at the heart of Te Ao Māori, as this helpful series of articles in Te Ara, our online encyclopaedia, explains. In turn, this worldview has given rise to a great body of knowledge, mātauranga Māori, about our living systems in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Back in 1900, Āpirana Ngata, the Ngāti Porou leader and scholar, wrote of mātauranga Māori and mātauranga Pākeha and the great benefit of "casting our nets between them", rather than fishing in one or the other. This insight is retold in a seminal lecture on mātauranga Māori given by Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal, an academic researcher and music composer, at the University of Canterbury in 2009.

He noted in the lecture that: “Mātauranga Māori today exists in a fragmentary and disorganised state; a good deal of existing mātauranga Māori concerns a world that only exists in the past and so a great deal of work needs to be done to bring about relevance and utility within this body of knowledge in our contemporary circumstances. Much has also been lost, and much mātauranga Māori has been superseded by other kinds of knowledge. So it is important not to make claims for mātauranga Māori that cannot be substantiated.”

He knew, though, there was still plenty of indigenous Māori knowledge extant, recoverable and yet to be learnt which could contribute powerfully to our contemporary and future progress

He identified three themes – searching for better relationships with the natural world, cross-boundary styles of thought and knowledge and the revitalisation of traditional indigenous knowledge – which, when woven together, “are the key ideas within international indigenous knowledge today.”

Royal has significantly led the growing understanding of mātauranga Maori and the contribution it can make to the Western worldview and science.

Sadly for the first six or seven years, these government initiatives to foster mātauranga Māori were often disparaging, box-ticking exercises. Rightly, Māori were insulted.

The Key government began to integrate indigenous knowledge into science policy with its 2010 decision by Minister of Research, Science and Technology Wayne Mapp to apply Vision Mātautanga across all science investment priority areas, and to establish the Vision Mātauranga Capability Fund to help further that goal.

The following year, Vision Mātauranga policy was incorporated into the Crown Research Institutes’ Statements of Core Purpose. This required them to enable the innovation potential of Māori knowledge, resources and people as part of their operating principles.

In 2014, the Key government created the 11 National Science Challenges, decade-long, inter-disciplinary programmes to progress our most complex and important science. Again, it made Vision Mātauranga a core element of each of them.

Sadly for the first six or seven years, these government initiatives to foster mātauranga Māori were often disparaging, box-ticking exercises. Rightly, Māori were insulted.

Thankfully, though, over the last few years the understanding that the two worldviews can inform and enhance each other has been growing for Pākeha and Māori, whether they are in science, farming, conservation, business, government and many other fields.

Two examples from the National Science Challenge are Our Land and Water and Science for Technological Innovation.

An example in conservation is Kotahitanga mō te Taiao, an alliance of all the local government bodies and some of the iwi in the top of the South Island, and the Department of Conservation. Its focus is on landscape-scale conservation projects that also have environmental, social, economic, and cultural benefits. Its vision is “that our extraordinary natural heritage is flourishing, having been restored over large areas, including where people live. People live, care for, and benefit from the environment in ways that bolster natural ecology together with the communities that live within them.”

Among notable Te Ao Māori developments last year:

- The Reserve Bank began a three-year strategy to help it “to engage with the increasingly important and diverse Māori economy.” The previous September it had released a history and explanation of the financial system and the Reserve Bank’s role in it which drew heavily on mātauranga Māori.

- Te Papa opened in May Te Taiao, a major permanent exhibition which brings together mātauranga Maori and Western science.

- The Primary Sector Council, a government appointed industry body, released in December its vision and strategy, Fit for a Better World. At the heart of it is Taiao, the Māori understanding of the environment, and the goal of combining “mātauranga Māori, community based knowledge and modern science.”

Internationally, the sustainable management of natural capital is taking on ever greater urgency given the escalating damage our current technologies and economic systems are doing to ecosystems. The Natural Capital Coalition is a leading example of major businesses committed to pioneering solutions.

The World Bank estimates that New Zealand ranks eighth out of 120 countries in natural capital per capita, outranked only by petroleum-exporting countries. Yet, we know we are rapidly degrading and depleting that rich gift. In response, a coalition of large companies and some government agencies established The Aotearoa Circle in October 2018 to work on better ways.

In all this, our symbiosis of mātauranga Māori and mātauranga Pākeha will be our powerful and distinctive contribution to knowledge and practice to the world.

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