Ātahirā – a new challenge for Māori

Māori survived landfall in this cold, harsh place to settle and thrive in it – a triumph of adaptation. Now Nature places another challenge in their path, writes Dave Hansford.

Robert MacDonald's first thoughts were for the kaumatua. Down on the flats, they were in the direct path of the rampaging Pouhokio. It had been raining now for six hours, and the river, denied a path to the sea by thickets of willows, sought another way. The line of least resistance, it turned out, lay down the main Waimārama road, then across the low paddocks behind the shore.

The plan, recalls MacDonald, was to fetch the elders from their threatened homes and bring up them up here, up the steep hill to his house. "Well, that never happened, because we found the river had cut them off completely".

The rain, if anything, fell harder after nightfall. The floods knocked out a bridge, while 120km/h winds took out the power, then the phone. Waimārama, like communities up and down the battered coast, was cut off to all but the helicopters that evacuated the young, the elderly and the ill.

A tide of water and mud flowed through the marae, spiritual and social touchstone for Waimārama whānau Ngāti Kurukuru, Ngāti Hikatoa, Ngāti Urakiterangi and Ngāti Whakaiti. Floods ravaged the whare tipuna and destroyed bedding and fixtures. An urupa was all but buried under mud, but it was the isolation that most sorely tested the town's Māori people. "That's distressing for anyone," explains MacDonald, "but more so for Māori, because we depend heavily on one another, especially in a situation like that, and our ability to support one another was lost completely.

"For nearly three days, we were isolated from each other, and that's not a natural way for Māori to live. Civil Defence and the Rural Fire Brigade did a marvellous job, but Māori people look for help from family, or the Māori community itself, in the first instance".

The emergency at Waimārama neatly encapsulates a broader issue for Māori facing climate change. Yes, all New Zealanders will be affected to some degree, but Māori communities will have to overcome challenges specifically their own, in their own way.

Climate change is a complex issue for Māori, says Darren King, a researcher at Te Kūwaha, NIWA's Māori Environmental Research Group.

"There are multiple dimensions – across different people, politically, environmentally – that make it difficult to specify any implications with certainty". King runs climate change adaptation programmes with three hapu – Ngāti Huirapa at Arowhenua, Te Tao Maui at Mitimiti and Ngāti Whanaunga at Manaia – that set out, in the first instance, simply to get a handle on the range of threats and issues they face. "We can identify a whole range of exposures and sensitivities that make Māori vulnerable to climate change impacts.

"There are a number of challenges and barriers that are common to all communities, but there are others that are quite distinct. And that really underlines the diversity among different Māori communities – you can't come up with a single policy expecting it to address everybody's issues".

For King, that complexity defines the challenge facing Māori. "Māori society comprises different whānau, different iwi, different hapū, different business enterprises". From within that diversity, Māori must also juggle geographical separation, varying skill levels and uneven access to resources and expertise. "Some have good internal relationships within the hapū, some don't. Some iwi enjoy a productive range of relationships with external agencies, others don't".

Climate change will likely exacerbate many of the socioeconomic difficulties and disparities Māori already face. Many iwi still lack the money and skills they need if they're to build resilience into their communities, but there's still more at stake. As of last year, Māori enterprise owned assets worth nearly $40b and contributed almost six per cent of GDP, but fully half of those assets lie in climate-sensitive primary industries like forestry, fishing, agriculture and tourism.

Some threats to terrestrial assets – drought, flooding, slipping, or the spread of invasive species – are obvious, but King says policy decisions, or market forces subtle or otherwise, can radiate hundreds of kilometres to hit remote Māori communities and businesses in ways unanticipated. "There's a range of indirect impacts that are often overlooked. We don't always appreciate that climate change is more than simply the biophysical side of life," he says.

"The decisions of other people in other places can have a major impact on Māori living in remote and seemingly isolated places".

Robert MacDonald says Māori people don't always choose their home for pragmatic reasons. They live where they do because of the pull of family, and an abiding ancestral bond with the land. For many pakeha, he says, Waimārama is an investment or lifestyle choice, "but for our people, it's home, and it's always going to be the place of their choice. It may not be the best place to find work, or to educate your children, but Māori people choose to live here because of that tie".

That, says Lisa Kanawa, a senior advisor on Māori policy at the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, has huge implications for the way Māori might decide to respond to the challenges of climate change, especially sea-level rise. "Most of our marae and papakainga are along the coast". Terms like 'managed retreat' – in which people essentially evacuate nearshore areas and start again on higher ground – get a guarded response from people with an affinity that stretches back over generations.

"Those things are really special to us," says Kanawa. "They're bound in cultural values. Retaining walls aren't going to work for much longer, so we need to think seriously about relocating. But how do we start making those decisions, while still upholding all those values and traditional knowledge? It's a heartbreaking decision".

Such weighty decisions are all the more burdensome for the responsibility they carry. Kanawa says Māori people know that their decisions today – around communities and business – will guide the fortunes of their descendants. "With the kind of inter-generational approach that Māori have to their land ... it's in our best interests to start planning now. That inter-generational approach is very strong. Another investor might pull their money after a few years; that's not going to happen in Māori business".

Whatever course, she says, "needs to be bound in tikanga. Every decision we make, whether that's our primary sector interests, whether it's around our families and households, needs to be bound in those fundamental values around being Māori".

A critical start, she says, for any Māori organisation, "is to be strong in who they are. Knowing what their vision is for themselves, as an iwi, or a hapu, or a trust. Then binding that into their tikanga and their values. Then, any decision that comes after that will be safe for you, and for future generations".

MacDonald says his people must effectively make their way with a foot planted in each of two worlds: Te Ao Māori, and "Pākeha law". And while they must be conversant with both, the understanding isn't always two-way.

"If we decide, for instance, that our choice is to do nothing, then that's often seen as an impediment – that we simply don't want to do anything. Often, the reasons we do things, or don't do them, are very poorly understood by the rest of the community".

King's work is showing that cultural ignorance often stymies progress on climate adaptation. "If there was a bit more effort to understand the Māori way – and there are a number of ways, I might add, not just one way – I think there would be greater understanding of the reasons people make the decisions and choices they do".

People need to try to understand the position that others find themselves in, he says. "There's always an historical context to any situation. If you want to understand that situation, then you have to understand the history, and a major part of history for many hapu, for many iwi, is that they're still dealing with the legacy of land confiscation".

According to Statistics New Zealand, more than half of all Māori are "economically deprived", a reality that not only hinders the Māori response to climate change, but makes some more vulnerable, says King: "If you work at a freezing works, for instance, you could have your hours cut as a result of the impact of drought.

"Another one is insurance; if you don't have enough money coming in, are you going to choose paying insurance premiums, or putting food on the table? It's not uncommon that, where people are earning very little money, they forego insurance. Or, because houses can fall into disrepair, when people actually seek insurance, they're declined because the house isn't in a fit state to insure".

Maybe seven kms up the coast from Waimārama, big, Pacific breakers explode on Ocean Beach, just 30m from Dawn Bennett's place. This small community exists, by dint of a single, vertiginous road that snakes down the coastal escarpment to a surf club and 40 or so houses.

If you want to visit Dawn this day, though, you'll have to walk, because the Anzac Day deluge triggered a massive slip about halfway down the road.

Ocean Beach typifies a situation many Māori communities find themselves in – comparatively remote, accessed by a single, vulnerable road, with electricity delivered or denied at the whim of nature. NIWA's climate forecasting contends that, as the atmosphere warms and gains more energy, there are likely to be more storms like the one that closed this road. It might deliver any monthly rainfall average in a single inundation. "We're seeing more severe storms, more flooding, which is ruining our infrastructure," says Kanawa. "When we should be re-investing in productivity, we're spending those reserves on repairing infrastructure instead".

Bennett shows me where thousands of cubic metres of mud have sloughed off the steep escarpment behind the village, come to rest against some of the houses – punched clean through the cladding and come to rest inside others. Tonnes of silt and torn trees lie piled up beside the now-quiet stream. At least the bridge abutments held up. Otherwise, the community would have been cut off entirely.

Bennett is a blur: quite apart from chairing the hapu incorporation, she's the local Civil Defence commander, a member of the Rural Fire Authority, one of the community's fisheries officers, and attends hui and hearings across the country. "I get involved because I know that, as a coastal community, we need to know what's going on, and what's coming before it hits us.

"We're looking at getting a strategic plan together for the environment here, because without that, you can kiss these houses goodbye. A resilient environment will ensure a resilient community". She points to the 12,000 native trees the people of Ngāti Mihirora, along with local schools and other groups, have planted, not just to lure back the tui, but to stabilise the scarps behind them.

Down on the beach, more plantings: this time native dune grass – pingao – that will hopefully trap and bind the sands swirling in the nor'easter, and build up some defences against a tide that rises a little higher each day.

Sea levels are tipped to rise along the coast by between 50 and 100cm before century's end, maybe higher. Around the other side of Cape Kidnappers, at Haumoana and Clifton, homeowners are already trying to keep the waves at bay with ever-more substantial fortifications, but still the sea routinely drives them from their homes.

That sort of havoc isn't expected at Ocean Beach, but Bennett has a plan, just in case. She's talking with Hastings District Council about creating 15 lease blocks on higher land behind the community. "Then we'd put houses up there on skids, so we can relocate them if necessary". If the council agrees, she says, "we'll take out every second bach down the front, so we don't end up with any Haumoana issues".

The incorporation is lucky: it owns 600 hectares of land here. "We could retreat all the way back to the Waimārama Road if we wanted to," says Bennett, "but I know some would prefer to stay here and let Tangaroa take us".

"We need to start planning now for what's coming," says Kanawa. "Māori are very good planners; we've navigated vast oceans, so there's no reason why we can't plan for the next 20 or 30 years".

But planning needs good information, and getting it to the right people, by the right means, is harder than it sounds. "It's very resource-intensive: it's about getting out there and talking to people. Who gets the information out to those remote communities? Who's the right agency or entity? Māori have different learning needs. Some still don't have access to the internet".

Whatever approach, she says, "must be culturally safe; not just for Māori, but for the organisations themselves, because it's a very sensitive space. Relationships are key, and they're bound in integrity, and trust, and honesty, and openness".

Robert MacDonald agrees: "Māori people will do things the way they are most comfortable with. Even in times of crisis, we have difficulty just shrugging those ways off".

And therein lies one of Māoridom's greatest strengths, says King. "For many, that connectedness between people makes many communities quite resilient. That manaakitanga, the principles of generosity, of reciprocity, of care – tautokotanga, and maintenance of internal relationships, these are the core values that underpin the Māori world.

"It's something that other, non-Māori communities could learn a lot from".

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NIWA's work with Māori

Victoria University's Climate Change Research Institute has contracted NIWA to examine the vulnerability – and resilience – of different Māori communities to climate change impacts. A series of place-based studies around the country – conducted by members of Te Kūwaha, NIWA's Māori Environmental Research Centre, will assess socioeconomic considerations, the types of assets at risk, and the capacity of those communities to adapt.

"We're currently halfway through two community-based projects," says project leader Darren King, "with a third in the early stages. The principal aim is to produce information the community can use, so it can develop adaptation plans for dealing with future climate change impacts. We want to better understand the context-specific issues those communities face: before you can come up with solutions, you need to know what the challenges and barriers are".

King and his team are working with three communities: Ngāti Huirapa at Arowhenua, Ngāti Whanaunga at Manaia, and Te Tao Maui at Mitimiti. Through semi-structured meetings, interviews, and site assessments, the project starts by ascertaining the scope and scale of climate threats a community might expect to face.

Scientists, policy analysts, and decision-makers will add more information to the mix, which will guide the development of adaptive strategies, not only for those involved, but also for others who may share similar challenges and experiences.

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"How do we think about our natural resources? Do we regard them as something separate? Or are they a part of us? And we a part of them?" Credit: Geoff Osborne
Ngāti Kahungunu Incorporation Chair Dawn Bennett: "I know some would prefer to stay here and let Tangaroa take us". Credit: Dave Hansford
Darren King (left) at a mapping exercise with kuia from Ngāti Huirapa at Te Hapa O Niu Tireni Marae, Arowhenua Pa, Temuka. Credit: NIWA