From the Exosphere
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From the Exosphere

Māori business lesson: Remember the flicking tail of the lizard

With Kevin Jenkins

This article was first published in The New Zealand Herald on 12 November 2019.

Residents of the coastal Bay of Plenty town of Matatā have been wrestling recently with the continuing impact of an extreme weather event nearly 15 years ago. On May 18, 2005 more than 300 mm of rain fell on the area in 24 hours, bringing boulders, logs and other debris down the Waitepuru and Awatarariki streams out of the hills to the town’s south-west. The debris wiped out several roads, destroyed 27 houses and damaged nearly a hundred more, and all up caused around $20 million worth of mayhem.

The flow down the Awatarariki at the town’s western edge was the worst, washing roughly 300,000 cubic metres of debris onto the stream’s “fanhead”. Since 2005 there’s been successful mitigation work on the Waitepuru and other catchment areas, but last year the Whakatāne District Council decided the “loss of life risk” for the Awatarariki fanhead was too high and proposed rezoning this high-risk area, including 16 private homes, as non-residential.

It’s a sobering story, one involving significant danger and loss for some of our fellow New Zealanders. In this “managed retreat”, those “high risk” residents would have to move away by March 2021. In recent weeks there’s been controversy about whether the buy-out package the Council is proposing will provide those residents with fair market value.

But there’s another strand to this story that highlights a vital resource that government in Aotearoa is now starting to recognise and harness.

The other major debris flow that night 14 years ago came down the Waitepuru stream at the far-eastern edge of Matatā. Although this too did major damage, it was notable that marae in the area were unaffected by it. Local Māori had carefully selected the locations for their marae on the basis of centuries of experience of the shifting path of the lower reaches of the Waitepuru.

Local Māori had carefully selected the locations for their marae on the basis of centuries of experience. Image source: Pixabay

As Dr Dan Hikuroa has explained in Mātauranga Māori, this knowledge had been crystallised and expressed in the form of a pūrākau — a traditional Māori narrative — that presents the stream and its tributaries in the form of the body (tinana), limbs (waewae) and flicking tail (hiku) of a ngārara, or lizard:

“After large flood events, the channel in the headwaters maintained its location, whereas the channel on the low-lying section often changed its course. Over the course of many centuries therefore, the unconfined low-lying stream section moved back and forth from side to side.”

The pūrākau of the Waitepuru stream and its dangerous, unstable tail exemplifies the kind of knowledge that Te Mana Rauhī Taiao — our Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) — has been working to incorporate into its decision making.

The tail of the lizard offers an interesting lesson. Image source: Pixabay

The EPA is a regulator operating at the interface between the economy and the environment at a time when this relationship is being reassessed and reframed. The complex context for the EPA’s work includes the accelerating pace of innovation — online sensors, precision agriculture, satellite scanning, big data and more.

Against that changing background, the EPA is doing some exciting new things. Under chief executive Dr Allan Freeth since 2015, the EPA has been making mātauranga, the Māori knowledge system, an indispensable part of its work so that decisions are always made with the best available information. It is prototyping new ways of weaving mātauranga together with scientific knowledge, and weaving it into the organisation’s regulatory practice. This is changing the way decisions are made at the local level, with important implications for our communities and for businesses looking to invest.

Tikanga Māori — intertwined with environmental protection

Ngā Kaihautū Tikanga Taiao, the EPA’s statutory Māori Advisory Committee, developed a major new protocol for the EPA in 2016, which emphasises that Māori have a unique perspective on environmental issues that has developed over many generations, through observation and experience.

“[T]he very identity of Māori and their way of doing things, or tikanga, is inextricably intertwined with the environment, leading Māori to have an ingrained determination to safeguard and care for New Zealand’s resources for future generations,” it says.

He Whetū Mārama, the EPA’s framework for delivering on its obligations to Māori, focuses on two elements: “Informed decision-making” and “Productive relationships”.

Informed decisions depend on EPA staff and decision-makers understanding Māori worldviews, and the organisation is focusing on building that capability and understanding.

The focus on “Productive relationships”, especially the EPA’s local networks, embeds localism into its work — just as localism is embedded in mātauranga itself. Ngā Kaihautū, the Māori Advisory Committee, has emphasised that: “There is no one Māori worldview or perspective on resource management matters. … the Māori perspective varies and differs between different iwi, hapū, marae, and whānau”.

From Matatā to Aneyoshi: ‘Always read the tsunami stone’

In an oral culture, storytelling is likely to have much more impact and longevity than earnest civil defence warnings. Pūrākau such as that of the Waitepuru ngārara — or of taniwha that dwell in the bends of rivers, where the water is deepest and most dangerous to swimming children — can provide powerful warnings of natural hazards, as well as guidance on responding to environmental disasters.

Vehicles for that kind of cumulative knowledge take a range of forms internationally — take the “tsunami stones” of Japan for example.

Unsurprisingly, being a long thin group of islands sitting on fault lines in the Pacific, Japan is prone to major earthquakes and tsunamis. The country’s coastline is dotted with stone tablets, some of which are 600 years old, carrying warnings such as “High dwellings are the peace and harmony of our descendants” and, more prosaically, “Remember the calamity of the great tsunamis. Do not build any homes below this point”.

The tsunami stones are perfect examples of the determination of a people to pass on wisdom about environmental risks to their descendants. But rapid industrialisation and urbanisation after World War II seem to have led to the loss of much of this knowledge.

Cities spread to the coasts, and more faith was put in seawalls and the like. Worse, many people were killed by the 2011 tsunami because they were too quick to return to their homes to inspect them for damage.

“Residents of Aneyoshi [a village in Tōhuku] would caution against ignoring the lessons of their ancestors,” reported Kurt Kohlstedt of 99% Invisible in August 2016.

“Technology and preparation can help, but building higher is a surer defence. Always read the tsunami stone.”

International voices

The work of our EPA can be seen in the context of efforts by international researchers to understand and preserve a range of indigenous knowledge systems — from Zambia, to China, to Papua New Guinea.

For example, Jing Wang has examined indigenous and scientific knowledge in the context of the development of sustainable agriculture in China.

Smallholder farmers are the main stakeholders in this development, and Wang reported in 2015 that their agricultural knowledge (indigenous knowledge) influences their decisions and behaviours both directly and indirectly. “However,” he noted, “the importance of smallholder-farmers’ indigenous knowledge is often ignored and not considered by influential actors, such as the government and scientists… We strongly argue that farmers should not be treated as passive followers in the development of agricultural knowledge.”

Jing Wang here brings out the connections between indigenous knowledge and the role of government, including regulation and decision-making at a local level, whether the issue is disaster mitigation, adapting to climate change, or sustainable agriculture.

One influential approach to studying indigenous knowledge uses the term “Traditional Ecological Knowledge” — or TEK. In several works, Fikret Berkes has discussed a growing recognition of the capabilities of ancient agriculturists, water engineers and so on, and how this has led to the increasing acceptance of TEK across a range of fields. Berkes describes Traditional Ecological Knowledge as an integrated system that can only be understood in its social context.

Like others, Berkes has concluded that science and indigenous knowledge are complementary. However, he also noted the difficulties in trying to combine them in practice, noting that they’re rooted in different worldviews and are often unequal in political power base.

Weaving together mātauranga Māori and science

While academics internationally have been grappling with the problem of combining indigenous and scientific knowledge, it looks like in New Zealand our EPA is just going ahead and doing it.

In their approach, there are some echoes of the themes talked about by Fikrit Berkes and the Traditional Ecological Knowledge concept — but also some departures and tensions worth noting.

For a start, the EPA is wary of approaches that seek to mine indigenous knowledge for elements found to be “scientific” without understanding the context and relationships in which that knowledge is embedded. They avoid talk of “integrating” mātauranga with science, as that can suggest subsuming mātauranga into a dominant Pākehā knowledge system. The EPA is instead embracing the metaphor of “weaving” mātauranga and science together and, more broadly, weaving mātauranga into all of the agency’s decision-making, operations and culture.

But what exactly does it mean to “weave” indigenous knowledge into a regulatory agency and its operations? Well, the EPA takes a holistic approach that centres on understanding mātauranga in its full context.

Dr Allan Freeth, the EPA’s CEO, and Doug Jones, head of its Māori policy and operations team. Photo / Kevin Jenkins

The EPA’s approach is comprehensive, embedding mātauranga into the organisation and its work in a number of ways — as explained to me by Doug Jones, Manahautū (general manager Māori) of Kaupapa Kura Taiao, the EPA’s Māori policy and operations team. Doug told me that in the EPA a number of critical elements have converged, including clear leadership, “hungry” staff, and strong local networks.

The EPA is also building the right culture and workforce for embedding mātauranga into its work. Roughly three-quarters of its staff are learning, or have learned, te reo Māori — important not least because the organisation accepts submissions and representations to hearings in te reo. This shift was recognised when the EPA was included as a finalist in the 2018 Ngā Tohu Reo Māori awards.

Ngā Kaihautū Tīkanga Taiao, the EPA’s statutory Māori Advisory Committee, is playing a central and everyday role, not a supplementary one, in the EPA’s approach. Ngā Kaihautū is, of course, an advisory body, but it is playing a more participatory, hands-on role than that suggests. The group is made up of experienced scientists, planners and academics, with specific expertise applied in the service of tangible results.

The committee’s objectives include upholding tikanga and the use of mātauranga Māori, including acting as “process guardians” to ensure that mātauranga is used appropriately.

Ngā Kaihautū advises the EPA not only on the decision-making process generally but also on specific applications and proposals when they raise issues of significance for Māori. Its members work closely with staff to help them understand and overcome barriers, and they sometimes present to specific decision-making committees. Ngā Kaihautū is therefore not away in the background — it participates in the daily work of the EPA.

Living knowledge, local knowledge

The EPA’s understanding of mātauranga Māori emphasises that it’s a living knowledge system. Of course, no knowledge can be given priority simply because it is old — it may be out of date, or may never have been accurate in the first place — and a knowledge system needs to be able to self-correct.

Although Fikrit Berkes, the TEK author, recognised that indigenous knowledge is “cumulative”, the label “Traditional Ecological Knowledge” may be unhelpful in suggesting a counterposing of the past to the present. From discussions with the EPA I’ve learned that they avoid talk of TEK in relation to mātauranga, precisely because “traditional” suggests a body of knowledge that is old, finite and fixed.

Mātauranga, the EPA emphasises, evolves and continually updates itself: “… mātauranga Māori includes knowledge from current and contemporary sources. As an organic and living knowledge base, mātauranga Māori is ever-growing and expanding”.

Another key dimension of the EPA’s approach is its focus on local relationships, reflecting the nature of mātauranga itself. The EPA’s Doug Jones gave the example of his own whānau and whakapapa, commenting that while his whānau know their local fishing hole intimately, they know little of others a relatively short distance away.

The EPA’s network of local kaitiaki and environmental resource managers, Te Herenga, is crucial to weaving that local knowledge into the EPA’s decisions. Those relationships help to incorporate the proper living context of mātauranga — not just isolated globs of information — into the agency’s life and practice.

The role of Ngā Kaihautū as an advisory body does not include trying to replace that local knowledge by acting as a single authority on mātauranga. Instead, Ngā Kaihautū facilitates incorporating local mātauranga into EPA decisions, by helping EPA decision-makers connect with local knowledge and sometimes recommending local experts for decision-makers to engage with.

Filling a gap for New Zealand regulators

The EPA also facilitates relationships between Māori and businesses who engage with it, supporting applicants to develop an understanding of tikanga Māori and issues of significance for Māori. For example, the EPA works closely with Ngāi Tahu’s own Hazardous Substances and New Organisms committee when Ngāi Tahu are engaging with industry on relevant applications.

That focus on the sector it regulates is an example of how the EPA is not just leading the drive to weave together mātauranga and science — it’s also doing critical work in incorporating mātauranga into regulatory systems and practice. It’s potentially providing a model for other government agencies in Aotearoa, and internationally.

Here the EPA is responding to a challenge — and a gap — presented by the government’s guidance for regulators. The current Government Expectations for Good Regulatory Practice, developed by the Treasury, don’t specifically mention mātauranga Māori. But they do include an expectation that any regulatory system will comply with Te Tiriti obligations, and those obligations should be seen as including the incorporation of mātauranga. Agencies’ work is also expected to be evidence-based and intelligence-led, and this should include properly considering mātauranga.

The guidelines also expect some flexibility — enough to allow regulators to adapt their approach to the attitudes and needs of different regulated parties, and to allow those parties to adopt efficient or innovative approaches to meeting their regulatory obligations.

In short, regulators have licence to explore and evolve how best to meet their Te Tiriti obligations. They are also expected to learn from each other, and from overseas regulators.

Always exploring and experimenting

It’s clear the Environmental Protection Authority is on a journey — a design-led process of exploration. In this it’s taking up the challenge laid down by the government guidelines, and working with the flexibility needed to develop good regulatory practice in a specific sector.

Once again New Zealand is experimenting, and feeling its way towards a unique, Aotearoa-specific response to the challenge of combining indigenous knowledge with regulatory practice. One notable but inevitable aspect of this is uncertainty — if you experiment, then by definition over time you will end up somewhere that many may not have predicted.

Like much that has come before over the last 30 years in this country, the EPA’s innovative approach is a mix of small advances on what has come before (Māori representation on committees for example) and bold new moves. In this, the agency’s work appears to be world-leading. It will be fascinating to see if and how mātauranga Māori spreads through the regulatory community and what further advances or adaptations other agencies may introduce.

About the author

Kevin Jenkins a Co-Founder of the professional services firm MartinJenkins together with Doug Martin in 1993.

Kevin has undertaken a wide range of assignments in the science and innovation, economic development, and tertiary education sectors — for example, work on the establishment of Callaghan Innovation (New Zealand’s advanced technology institute). He has worked a lot in the justice sector, including leading a major programme targeted at leveling off the increase in the prison muster, and another at ensuring that the cost of the sector is stabilised.

Kevin is a regular contributor to the New Zealand Herald.

Kevin Jenkins

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From the Exosphere is a platform for sharing thoughts from the team at MartinJenkins. The exosphere is the last layer of atmosphere before space, offering an unrivalled view of our blue planet and where we might go next.

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