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When Restoring Ecology and Culture Are One And The Same

Ecological landscape designer Jennifer Dowdell reflects on her experience studying restoration efforts of New Zealand’s indigenous Mäori people and shares some of her findings.

Article Index

Pa Harakeke: a study of Mäori  Ecological and Cultural Restoration Values In the New Zealand Landscape – AN EXCERPT

Our decision to focus this issue of Leaf Litter on indigenous peoples and their role in ecological restoration and conservation design prompted me to look back at some of the work I’d done in New Zealand while in graduate school. Besides a gorgeous landscape and some of the most welcoming hosts I’ve ever met, New Zealand is special for its wide-reaching environmental regulation (the Resource Management Act) which guides responsible and sustainable development and redevelopment across the country, and outlines in great detail the important role the Mäori play in resource management, cultivation and conservation. After returning from a summer visit to the kiwi-owned landscape architecture firm Boffa Miskell in 2006, I wrote a piece on the Mäori and their contributions to ecological restoration.  Below is a summary excerpt from the paper.

kupu whakataki: introduction, linking land, people, and plants

New Zealand is host to some amazingly unique flora and fauna. The people of New Zealand are well aware of the value that this adds to their national economy through tourism and the many ecosystem services and benefits that these rich resources provide. The Mäori, the first inhabitants of New Zealand, also have a unique position within their national government, having been recognized early in the nation’s history as an integral part of the national conversation when it comes to land and resource use, and management.

Māoritanga: a story of connection

The Mäori continue to have a deep spiritual connection to the natural world. This is reflected in their traditional narratives, which include “environmental virtues that are tribal traditions” (Patterson 1994). Their beliefs include an explicit environmental philosophy that continues to play a role in their relationship with the landscape and their utilization of resources (Patterson 1994).

One of the most recognized stories is that of the ancestor Rata. In the forest outside his village, he cuts down a tree in order to build a canoe for a journey to avenge his father’s death, but does not say the appropriate karakia (ritual prayer) in order to obtain permission to take the tree from the forest god, Tane-mahuta. (Tane is also the father of humanity so there is an explicit understanding that there is kinship between flora, fauna and humans.) Before building his canoe, Rata rests, and during his nap the kaitiaki (forest guardians) restore the tree. When he awakes it has been restored. Rata tries again, and again the tree is restored while he sleeps. The third time he pretends to sleep and when he catches the kaitiaki restoring his tree they explain their disapproval in his not showing respect of Tane through the ritual prayer. After he expresses his shame and explains his needs and says his karakia he is then allowed to take the tree to build his canoe. This narrative is said to remind the Mäori  that the “environment is not simply a collection of resources to be exploited but a community of related beings, all of them linked to humans by ties of kinship, all of them needing protection, and demanding respect.” (Patterson 1994, 398)

Mäori values are very much entwined with the health and success of the forest and other natural systems that characterize the New Zealand landscape. The natural world and its elements are part of their whakapapa (geneology), repositories of their matauraunga (knowledge), significant for their rongoa (healing properties) and ritenga (customary traditions and protocols for living), and hold their taonga (treasure) (Nghahere statement, Manaaki Whenua online).  Mauri is the essence of being that permeates all living things, and the contamination or degradation of the natural environment is seen to be a diminishment of that life force. Manatu Māori, a former minister of Mäori Affairs, described Mäori cultural sites – both ritual and natural— as “windows to the past,” places that provide meaning and value to the environment in which humans live and subside (Harmsworth 1997).

a people’s investment in ecological restoration, a matter of cultural survival

Results of recent studies in New Zealand indicate that land development, forest clearing, and overall environmental degradation in the last 100 years has had an enormous impact on Mäori well-being, through the loss of flora and fauna and the associated decrease in access to traditional resource banks, and the decline of the mauri (life essence) of the rivers around the country (Landcare Research Manaaki Whenua, accessed 2006).

Ecological restoration is understood as simultaneously achieving goals related to reaffirming traditional uses and striving toward a more balanced and holistic connection with the environment by enhancing landscapes rather than restoring them back to some pristine state (Harmsworth 2004). Ecological restoration goals focus on returning specific taonga (treasures) by reconstructing habitat; avoiding contamination and restoring mauri (life essence);  locally sourcing both flora and fauna species when restoring a site; and identifying and eliminating pest species (Harmsworth 2004). In both the Mäori story described above as well as contemporary descriptions of ecological restoration, it is clear that there is a sense of responsibility to recognize and give back to the natural system so that system does not lose its mauri (Orbell 1985).

Work is currently going on in many areas of restoration including a joint project between the Mäori and the pakeha (New Zealanders of non- Mäori origin) called the Mäori Community Goals for Enhancing Ecosystem Health initiative and collaborative research which focuses on areas of particular sensitivity and benefit to the pakeha, Māori, and the living landscape of New Zealand (Harmsworth 2004 & 1997; Landcare Research Manaaki Whenua).

harakeke: new zealand flax case study

Harakeke (swamp flax, Phormium tenax) is unique to New Zealand and the neighboring Norfolk Islands, and is most commonly found in coastal transition zones between land and sea (marsh systems). According to a report put out by the NZ Sustainable Farming Fund Project, “It is in these transition zones that we have the greatest need – and the greatest opportunity – to re-establish harakeke/wharariki as part of resilient, diverse Indigenous ecosystems”(McGruddy 2006).

The decline in harakeke stems from years of wetland drainage for agriculture and development, channelization of rivers, and clearing of native vegetation. Over 90% of wetlands in NZ have been drained and “in all but a few districts, only tiny and barely sustainable remnants of coastal sand country, and lowland wetland and alluvial environments remain”(McGruddy 2006; New Zealand Department of Conservation 2006).  Harakeke has been replaced by ryegrass, clover, willows and poplars, pampas and pine- all nonnative plants that were introduced during the waves of European settlement (McGruddy 2006).

whakauka: resilience through layered  ecosystem services

Harakeke has special value and meaning to the Māori. The early Mäori settlers had traveled from subtropical islands carrying with them certain plant species which could not survive in the new more harsh climate of Aotearoa.

“After food, the most essential commodity to early Mäori was harakeke. The first arrivals were well skilled in raranga, the plaiting of leaves to make mats and containers, and harakeke would have been immediately used in this way. When it was discovered that the leaves of harakeke could be scraped to obtain thick, strong fiber, Mäori added new weaving techniques to their repertoire, and increased the range of possible uses”(Scheele 1994). 

Harakeke fibers were woven into eel pots, hooks and lines; made into baskets to store food; made into clothing including rain capes for expeditions inland and skirts for the women, shields for battle, mats, belts, fishing lines, sails, ropes, and traps. (Orbell 1985) Besides the fiber, the nectar and oils from the plant were used as sweeteners and medicines respectively. Each pa or marae (fortification or meeting house) would typically have a pa harakeke (flax plantation)(Scheele 1994; Orbell 1985; New Zealand Department of Conservation 2006).

matea: restoration

As Sue Scheele explains in a paper about the restoration of harakeke, “There is wordwide concern at the loss of natural genetic variability and traditional knowledge of useful plants. Harakeke is such an overwhelmingly useful plant that there was an obvious case for the assembly of a living collection of known cultivars, together with documentation on names, origins, special qualities and uses, and the maintenance of it in the long term as a national asset”(Scheele 1994).

Thus projects like the Orchiston Collection, begun by weaver and gardener Rene Orchiston, have become the basis for many new projects devoted to harakeke restoration as it relates both to cultural preservation and ecological restoration. Manaaki Whenua, the Crown Institute for Landcape Research, has taken a leadership role in partnering with Mäori weavers to research plant taxonomy and properties, add other cultivars to the national collection, and care for a growing National New Zealand Flax Collection (Scheele 1994). Manaaki Whenua and other educational and research institutions have collaborated on research to support the restoration of harakeke in the native landscape as both a restorative and a productive element. (McGruddy 2006)

Ecological restoration studies in New Zealand have focused on the value of harakeke in the improvement of ecological corridor connections, particularly along waterways where hydrology could be improved, for erosion control and nutrient uptake. Restored harakeke can renew the natural character of the dunes and coastal habitat as well as secure against further erosion. Along farm edges and riparian corridors dual uses have been suggested, where harakeke can be established for ecological reasons and then harvested for traditional cultural uses (McGruddy 2006).

whakauru: the people’s participation, restoration planning and planting

“In many areas, traditional cultivars have been lost; and, alongside the resurgence in traditional crafts, many iwi groups are re-establishing pa harakeke, carefully tended plantations of special local varieties or traditional weaving cultivars, selected for properties such as strength, softness, durability and yield.” (McGruddy 2006) Because of the requirements of the RMA Mäori participation and input in restoration projects, whether they are cultural or ecological, is high. Weavers, community members, and village elders are included in conversations when planning and design projects for new or restored areas are done.

A project by the landscape architecture and planning firm Boffa Miskell Ltd. highlights the relationship that the Mäori have with development projects and how restoration work have been integrated into new development plans. A planned community was built north of Christchurch along the Pacific Coast. The plan for the new town included both native habitat restoration, in what has been termed the Eastern Conservation Management Area (ECMA), or in Mäori Te Kohanga (the nesting ground/nursery), as well as a cultural restoration area devoted to harakeke and production, education, and outreach. Boffa Miskell worked on a series of restoration plans including the creation of a Pa Harakeke (harakeke garden). Working with iwi (subtribe) consultant Te Marino, designer Nancy Vance coordinated formal meetings with local tribe members, weavers and tribal elders at a local marae (meeting house). Together they drafted and designed the pa to be a valuable an education tool, a restoration tool, and a productive landscape that will be harvested. Plans were drawn up that were mindful of proper and traditional planting techniques:

“Flax is always planted in 3’s, with their poku (“belly”) pointing to the east. They should be spaced 3m apart and are often planted orchard-like for ease of maintenance and access. Space allows air to circulate and therefore less disease, and for the best productive potential.” (Vance 2006)

“The late Ngoingoi Pewhairangi of Tokomaru Bay suggested that, when planting, the concave side of the fan should face the prevailing wind—‘the flax, like the Māori, carries its baby on its back and the mother protects it.’ Young flax leaves are very palatable to stock, so bushes should be securely fenced.” (Scheele 2005)

Boffa Miskell designers were also careful about the protection of certain cultivars in the organization of the plants in the design. Some cultivars were received from Manaaki Whenua National Collection while others were contributed by individuals, having been passed down through family. The hardiest and most common cultivars were designed to be at the entry, while the family lines will be placed in less conspicuous and accessible areas, protected from over-harvesting and trampling. Besides the gardens, the harakeke is planted with other natives as structured plantings that contribute to the enhanced ecosystem integrity and integration with the neighboring native bush in the Te Kohanga. The designers at Boffa Miskell, in collaboration with the local iwi, were careful to order only local cultivars from the Manaaki Whenua National Collection in order to do their best to restore local native integrity. (Infinity Group 2006, ECMA- Te Kohanga Management Plant, http://www.pegasustown.com/the-town/conservation-areas, http://researcharchive.lincoln.ac.nz/dspace/bitstream/10182/1451/3/Lenihan_Marino.pdf.txt ; http://www1.ccc.govt.nz/Council/agendas/2006/June/BurwoodPegasus7th/PaHarakeke.pdf )

The Pa Harakeke has been designed to be a more production- and culture- oriented landscape with a focus on the mana (spirit) of the Mäori whakapapa (geneology), while the larger Te Kohanga includes open water areas in the sand dunes, tall rushland areas, short rushland areas, willow stands with native understory, wetland areas, pine forest, and a carex swamp. This is a melding together of introduced and native species, but with a focus on adaptive management for increased biodiversity and native survival. Te Kohanga has been mandated to be a place that “protects archeological and cultural values, while also providing for enjoyment, maintenance, and enhancement of nature conservation values, including the habitat of all indigenous species, and associated recreation and education” (ECMA Management Plan 2006).

mutunga: conclusion

Pa Harakeke is just one example of the work that New Zealanders are doing to incorporate Mäori traditional values into ecological restoration management. The kiwi sensibility strives for ways to incorporate and include all members of society in the process of ecological restoration in a way that is respectful of traditional knowledge and cognizant of factors of biodiversity in the landscape. The value of the Mäori heritage and tradition, as contemporary cultural preservation and resource management, is recognized as an important element in the practice of ecological restoration.

Thank You

Special thanks to Nancy Vance, Te Marino Lenihan, Don Miskell, and Simon Swaffield for resources and insights into the restoration practices on the ground, and for sharing their practical professional knowledge about cultural and ecological restoration in New Zealand.


Boffa Miskell

ECMA Management Plan. 2006. Infinity Group  & Boffa Miskell Ltd.  3 Plans for Pegasus Pa Harakeke and ECMA, ECMA Management Plan. Copyright 2006. All rights reserved.

Harmsworth, G.R. 1997. Mäori values for land use planning. New Zealand Association of Resource Management (NZARM) broadsheet, February 1997. pp 37-52. http://icm.landcareresearch.co.nz/site_details/project_people/garth_harmsworth.htm, Accessed October 11, 2006.

Harmsworth, G.R. 2004. A Mäori perspective on biodiversity restoration. PPT of Presentation: Research in Ecological Restoration, Landcare Research Manaaki Whenua,  Workshop, Hamilton, May 2004. http://icm.landcareresearch.co.nz/site_details/project_people/garth_harmsworth.htm , Accessed November 13, 2006.

Janet Stewart Reserve online, oral history and harakeke background, http://library.christchurch.org.nz/TiKoukaWhenua/JanetStewart/ , Accessed November 4, 2006.

Landcare research, Manaaki Whenua. www.landcareresearch.co.nz. (Crown Research Institute Manaaki Whenua)- Mäori community goals for enhancing ecosystem health FRST contract # TWWX0001) report, accessed October 20 and November 11, 2006.

Kiaatamai website, Mäori  God Tane image. Accessed November 14, 2006. (http://www.kiaatamai.org.nz/b_atua/tane.htm)

Maori Dictionary online, http://www.maoridictionary.co.nz/index.cfm (translations).

McGruddy, Elizabeth. 2006. (Editor/Compiler) Integrating New Zealand Flax into Land Management Systems. Sustainable Farming Fund Project 03/153. July 2006.

(accessed through Simon Swaffield, Professor of Landscape Architecture and Dean of the department at Lincoln University, New Zealand.)

New Zealand Department of Conservation, Flax Facts Online, Accessed November 11, 2006. http://www.doc.govt.nz/Community/002~Events/Conservation-Week/000~Archive/010~2001/Unique-New-Zealand-Education-Resource/004~Native-Flax.asp

Ngahere statement, Manaaki Whenua online, Accessed October 21, 2006 and November 9 2006. http://www.landcareresearch.co.nz/research/social/documents/Biodiversity_Māori_factfile.pdf

Orbell, Margaret. 1985. The Natural World of the Māori. David Batemen Ltd. Auckland, New Zealand.

Patterson, John. 1994. Mäori Environmental Values. Environmental Ethics, Vol 16. 397-409.

Resource Management Act verbiage that applies to the Mäori (Tangata Whenua) taken from : http://www.eds.org.nz/rma/introduction/tangata.cfm

Scheele, Sue. 1994. Harakeke: the Rene Orchiston collection / Sue Scheele ; based on information provided by Rene Orchiston. — 3rd ed. — Lincoln, NZ : Manaaki Whenua Press, 1994 (2005).

Smitz, Paul et. al. 2004. Lonely Planet: New Zealand. Lonely Planet Publications Pty Ltd.

Tararu Valley Natural History of New Zealand Online. Accessed November 9, 2006. http://www.tararuvalley.org/rainforest-conservation/natural-history-of-NZ.html

Treaty of Waitangi Online, New Zealand Governnent Website, Accessed Novemeber 11, 2006. http://www.treatyofwaitangi.govt.nz/story/shortstory.php.

Te Marino Lenihan on behalf of Pegasus Town Ltd, Te Ngāi Tūahuriri Rūnanga & Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu. (iwi consultant) November 2006, through Nancy Vance and Boffa Miskell Ltd.

Vance, Nancy. Personal phone interview and email correspondence. October and November 2006. Pegasus Project Pa Harakeke. Landscape Architect at Boffa Miskell Ltd. Christchurch office. Gloucester Street Christchurch.NZ.

Wikipedia Online, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gondwanaand New Zealand – all images are in the public domain. Accessed November 11-13, 2006.

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