Mātauranga Māori: Applying a Māori lens to environmental management

The unique relationship between Māori and the environment can inform regulatory decision making, and help make the welfare of our environment part of everyone’s personal journey.

By Te-Wainuiarua Poa

1 February 2020

Ko Ruapehu te maunga
Ko Whanganui te awa
Ko Aotea te waka
Ko Atihaunui-a-Pāpārangi te iwi
Ko Te Wainuiarua Poa ahau

Read Te Wainuiarua's biography 

As a child, I was fortunate to be near my elders as they recited the songs and stories passed down to them. As a teenager, I was honoured to sit next to the Whanganui River and witness the rolling currents my people admired for generations. Coming into my age, I am determined to keep these experiences and practices alive for the next generation.

For Māori, self-identity and group identity are intimately connected to the environment and the experiences our ancestors cultivated through the land. Mātauranga Māori is a body of knowledge encapsulating these specific life experiences that form the basis of our identity, language, cultural practices and value systems.

Much like other indigenous knowledge systems, mātauranga Māori draws from and reinforces the holistic connection that Māori have to the land and sea. It embodies our inherent connections to the ecosystem, spiritual beings and other living species we share the land and sea with.

An illustration of a child and mother kneeling down superimposed on an image of the beach.

An illustration created by Te Wainuiarua.

Recognising the value of mātauranga Māori in environmental management

Over the Summer of 2019/2020 I have held an internship within the Kaupapa Kura Taiao team at the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA). Here I have had a chance to see first-hand how the relationship between Māori and the environment can inform regulatory decision making.

Recognising there are spaces in our government agencies and regulatory processes that honour our unique relationship with the environment has given me hope for the future, because the health of our environment is important to Māori. Without a sustainable connection to the land and sea we could potentially lose everything that forms the basis of our individual and collective identities.

Here at the EPA we are developing a mātauranga Māori programme which offers a unique approach to the way we assess environmental impacts specifically concerning Māori. Mātauranga Māori is important to the way we, in Aotearoa, maintain and restore our environment because it draws upon place-based values and practices distinctive to a Māori worldview.

At its core, mātauranga Māori offers a pro-active philosophy of reciprocation and protection between the environment and Māori. Terms such as whakapapa (geneology), manaakitanga (generosity), mauri (life force) and kaitiakitanga (guardianship) are all used to affirm our role as environmental custodians while also providing guidance to the way we manage natural resources effectively.

These concepts and terms illustrate the importance of mātauranga Māori in determining how Māori operate within our native landscapes. This unique body of knowledge plays an important role in safeguarding and ensuring the health of our environment because it solidifies the practices of our ancestors who sustained life here all those years ago.

A illustration of two hands touching each other, superimposed on a photo of hills and the ocean.

An illustration created by Te-Wainuiarua Poa

Global and local perspectives regarding indigenous customs and community participation

Globally, there is growing recognition of the benefits that indigenous peoples can bring to ecology and conservation. The EPA’s mātauranga Māori programme is leading the way by providing a framework to weave a Māori perspective into decision making and strengthening our understanding of mātauranga Māori across the organisation.

At a local level, the EPA recognises the importance of making the welfare of our environment part of everyone’s personal journey. Research shows that including values and practices pertaining to an indigenous worldview, such as mātauranga Māori, can encourage meaningful community engagement and build enduring connections between people and the environment.

There is strong evidence suggesting that active community participation and customary usage of natural resources increases the long-term success of environmental restoration projects. Most award-winning restoration projects throughout Australia and New Zealand have been recognised for having high levels of community representation and engagement at the planning stage.

However, a common limitation to these projects’ success was failing to incorporate indigenous cultural values within their aims and management. Restricting community involvement and ignoring their concerns diminishes the community’s desire to support biodiversity restoration and conservation projects.

At the EPA we are committed to protecting the environment and the people who live and work in it. We can do this by continuing to reach out to communities and bringing their whakaaro (perspectives) into the work we do.

Further reading

If you are seeking more information check out the recent New Zealand Journal of Ecology special issue on mātauranga Māori and the environment.

Read the New Zealand Journal of Ecology special issue on Mātauranga Māori – New Zealand Ecological Society website. 

Aroha atu, aroha mai
Nā Te Wainuiarua Poa

Te Wainuiarua's biography

Te Wainuiarua joined the EPA as a 2019/20 summer intern in the Kura Kaupapa Taiao team. She is a proud Māori born in Te Kuiti and raised in Whanganui. Te Wainuiarua is a student at Victoria University of Wellington currently completing her undergraduate degrees in a Bachelor of Laws and a Bachelor of Arts majoring in te reo Māori, Māori studies and Māori resource management.