What makes a forest healthy? Māori knowledge has some answers.

What makes a forest healthy? Māori knowledge has some answers.

RUATĀHUNA, New Zealand — In certain seasons, the forest used to look like a bride, recalled Māori elders in Ruatāhuna: vibrant, healthy, and clothed in all its glory.

These days, they agreed, it looks more like an old lady, ragged and tired. There’s a feeling of loneliness there now, too, as if the forest is yearning for people to visit more often, like they used to.

Such evocative descriptors are not usually the stuff of scientific papers.

What makes a forest healthy? Māori knowledge has some answers.
A kererū (native woodpigeon, Hemiphaga novaeseelandiae). The birds are culturally and ecologically important for Tūhoe. Image by Bernard Spragg. NZ via Flickr.

But in the Tuawhenua region of the ancient Te Urewera temperate rainforest, a fruitful collaboration between the community of Ruatāhuna, its local land trust and a government research institute is helping to bring indigenous knowledge to the forefront of environmental management.

Working with community elders and other traditional knowledge holders, the collaborators have articulated their own, culturally relevant systemfor monitoring forest health.

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The famous Te Urewera mist shrouds the Tuawhenua valley in early morning. Image by Monica Evans for Mongabay.

In the past, such a project would have been unnecessary. The Te Urewera forest, homeland of the Tūhoeiwi (a tribe of the Māori indigenous group), is sandwiched between jagged hills covered in dense bush, and is the largest remaining tract of indigenous forest in New Zealand’s North Island. It was also one of the last places in New Zealand to be claimed by British colonizers in the late 19th century.

The majority of Te Urewera was bought or taken by the colonizing government in the early 20thcentury, and later turned into a national park that was only handed back to Tūhoe in 2014. In the Tuawhenua, however, most hapū (subtribes) managed to hold onto their land and retain a relatively high level of autonomy. Since 1987, 25 hapū-owned land blocks, making up about 45 percent of the Tuawhenua’s total area, have been managed by the Tūhoe Tuawhenua Trust. This organization aims to keep the land under traditional ownership and environmentally sustainable management while pursuing economic and educational opportunities for the community.

The community’s relationship with its forest was historically strong. People relied on the bush to meet most of their needs. “In my time,” says Trust chair Tahae Doherty, who was born in the area in the 1940s, “a lot of the families within the Tuawhenua, I would say 75 percent of their livelihoods came from the forest.” In turn, they provided kaitiakitanga (guardianship) over the environment and its plant and animal inhabitants.

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Tahae Doherty, chair of the Tūhoe Tuawhenua Trust and a forest expert, shares knowledge with a young person as part of the Te Whare o Rehua forest academy program. Image courtesy of Tūhoe Tuawhenua Trust.

However, in the 1950s and ’60s, under pressure from government authorities to show they were using their land “productively,” the community allowed logging companies to come in and selectively log podocarp conifers (family Podocarpaceae) in their forests. As a result, the majority of these massive, centuries-old canopy-forming trees were brought to the ground. Meanwhile, introduced pests such as Australian brushtail possums (Trichosurus vulpecula), deer (genusCervus), boars (Sus scrofa), rats (Rattus norvegicus) and stoats (Mustela erminea) were also reducing bird numbers and impairing the forest’s ability to regenerate.

The forest was changing, and so were its people. The timber companies brought money into the Ruatāhuna valley, as well as a window into more Westernized lifestyles and opportunities. Many Tūhoe left for jobs in cities. For those who stayed, the availability of unemployment benefits made self-sufficiency a less pressing need. And the increasing dominance of the Pākeha (New Zealand–European) worldview meant younger people did not always treat traditional knowledge as the taonga (treasure) they had in the past.

As a result, people stopped going into the forest as much as they used to. “When my elders went into the bush, they would travel down the river for days on in, and they would bump into lots of other people along the way … And you just don’t see that anymore,” says Puke Tīmoti, who was involved in the project as a community researcher and is now studying for a master’s degree in science at the University of Waikato in Hamilton.

“It’s sad,” he says. “There were places they grew crops that are now turning back into bush, and certain trees that they performed ceremonies on, which are no longer there.” For the Ruatāhuna community, reviving traditional knowledge and connecting new generations with their forest is critical to cultural survival, food security and the health of the forest itself.

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Puke Tīmoti, a community researcher from Ruatāhuna. Image by Monica Evans for Mongabay.

What we measure is what we defend

These days, the value of matauranga Māori (Māori knowledge) in addressing contemporary environmental challenges, such as new invasive plant diseases, is becoming more widely recognized across New Zealand. Institutions like the Department of Conservation (DOC) are beginning to integrate this kind of knowledge into their work, and they recognize that it has practical uses in the management of indigenous biodiversity.

However, there’s still plenty of work left to give matauranga Māori the emphasis in land management that it deserves, says Tīmoti. All management is driven by a particular worldview and set of values, he explains, and that affects what is prioritized, what is measured and, ultimately, what is protected within a forest ecosystem.

The story of the kiwi (genus Apteryx) and the kererū or native wood pigeon (Hemiphaga novaeseelandiae), provides a case in point. The DOC prioritizes kiwi conservation across Te Urewera, and New Zealand as a whole, because the birds are both severely endangered and culturally important. Many New Zealanders colloquially call themselves “Kiwis,” so the birds’ extinction would be unthinkable for the national self-image.

For Tūhoe, however, the kererū is actually a much higher priority. They consider the birds a taonga, and historically valued them highly as a source of food and feathers. However, the government banned their harvest in 1921, as part of a blanket ban on hunting most native birds due to declining numbers. The move clearly illustrated the conflict between Māori notions of conservation-through-use, and the more protectionist ideals of the Pākeha-dominated government.

The birds have a critical role in maintaining the forest’s biodiversity, as they are the only remaining species that can swallow and disperse some of the larger native fruits and seeds. In fact, the abundance of kererū and other birds in the forest is said to be one of the reasons Tūhoe settled in the mountainous, often chilly Te Urewera area when they first arrived in New Zealand, rather than choosing a coastal location like most other iwi.

Kererū are big, heavy birds, much portlier and prettier than their urban European cousins. It’s entertaining to watch them alight optimistically upon thin branches, which sag and sometimes snap under their weight. When they take off, there’s a resounding “whump” in their wingbeats.

For Tuawhenua elders, the size of kererū flocks is a key indicator of forest health. In the community’s monitoring system, the researchers, guided by elders, determined to assess this through a range of metrics, such as the level of noise a flock makes, and the amount of awe a Tūhoe observer feels when witnessing a large flock at close range. Other colorful indicators abound in the system, such as “the language or sound of the river,” and “the strength and presence of the mauri (life essence or life force) within the forest.”

But the researchers were also keen to demonstrate that these poetic descriptors, in addition to being beautiful and culturally on point, have entirely practical applications. After developing the indicators, they initiated a new study to assess the health of the Ruatāhuna forest, as well as the ecologically similar Whirinaki forest nearby. They took community elders into the forests to rate them, according to the indicators they had developed, against their recollections of Ruatāhuna forest during the period between 1955 and 1975, when the elders were young adults. While logging had already begun in Ruatāhuna by then, all of the participants had witnessed large areas of the forest in its unlogged state, and with much lower numbers of introduced pests than in the present day. They also assessed the ecosystems using Western scientific measures, in order to explore the similarities and differences in the results of the two systems.

The elders found the Whirinaki forest to be in a better condition than the Ruatāhuna forest, but both were considerably less healthy than the historic baseline. The researchers found that there were high levels of agreement in the results of both systems, and that the community-based method was particularly useful for establishing historic baselines. The Trust will use the monitoring system to track progress toward regeneration goals in the new forest management plan that it is currently developing.

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The road to Tuawhenua traces a branch of the Whakatāne river. For local elders, “the language or sound of the river” is a key indicator of forest health. Image by Monica Evans for Mongabay.

Letting some traditions sleep so others can survive

The research results highlighted the richness and particularity of the community’s knowledge of its forests. But the team is well aware that much of this knowledge could disappear very quickly, and the next few years will be critical. When Mongabay visited Ruatāhuna in November, many of the residents were away in a neighboring town for the funeral of one of the study interviewees. For the first phase of the biodiversity indicators research, which took place in 2016, the researchers interviewed 43 people, and at least 11 have died since. “And the knowledge goes with those people,” says Tīmoti.

In the past, that kind of knowledge wasn’t freely given, either. Traditionally, it was handed down through family lines in a very specific, structured way, and “gleaning knowledge” from multiple sources was looked down upon. Even 10 years ago, when the Trust teamed up with the governmental Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research (MWLR) institute to begin studying traditional knowledge in the area, many people in Ruatāhuna were reluctant to be interviewed. But in the last five years things have changed.

“There’s a saying,” Tīmoti says: “Me mate te tikanga, kia ora ano ai te tikanga, which means that we must put to sleep some of our traditions, in order for other traditions to survive.”

The elders have realized that given the realities of urban migration, modernization and many young people’s disinterest in traditional ways, their knowledge is not getting passed on quickly enough. So they’re now open to sharing it with anyone who is passionate about it, Tīmoti says.

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Location of the Tuawhenua region and community of Ruatāhuna within the forested mountainous region of Te Urewera on the North Island of New Zealand. Image courtesy of Lyver et al. 2017.

Even so, he’s already witnessing knowledge slip through his fingers. When he listens to those first, decade-old interviews with people who have now passed, he hears “language associated with that forest which has never been heard again.” He’s gone back to surviving elders to try to understand the unfamiliar words, and sometimes they don’t know, either.

That makes for a very real sense of urgency about the work, which can be difficult to marry with the slow pace of academic processes and funding cycles. What’s more, Tīmoti acknowledges, Ruatāhuna is one community among many. There are multitudes of groups across Aotearoa (the Māori name for New Zealand) with their own matauranga, much of which is just as much at risk as that of Tūhoe in Ruatāhuna.

So the researchers are keen now to take their approach into new locations. It won’t be a matter of copy-and-pasting the Ruatāhuna community’s indicators, which are by nature extremely specific to the valley. But it doesmean finding out what matters to each community with regard to restoration, and encouraging bodies like the DOC to support those priorities.

“It’s a mind shift,” says Tīmoti. “People might think, in Western societies, that these people don’t have the knowledge to manage their lands properly. But actually when we look at it, they’ve managed their environments for hundreds of years, and in fact the biodiversity was much richer back then than it is now.”

In the case of the kererū, for example, some opponents of Tūhoe aspirations to reclaim the right to customary harvest are concerned they’ll hunt the birds into extinction. “So we need to shift people’s thinking,” says Tīmoti, because to overuse the resource would violate what Tūhoe hold dear. “The value is kaitiakitanga [guardianship],” he says, “and it works to preserve, not erode.”

Tūhoe also place high value on whakapapa, which is often translated as “genealogy,” but which extends much further than conventional family trees to outline the interconnectedness of all things. Taking care of the environment is thus a familial obligation, a matter of respecting and doing right by one’s elder relatives, be they trees, animals, or the land itself.

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A spiderweb on tawa trees (Beilschmiedia tawa), which have become dominant in the Tuawhenua forests after decades of logging. Image by Monica Evans for Mongabay.

The next question, then, is whether governmental bodies and institutions are willing and able to step aside so that communities like Ruatāhuna can manage resources such as kererū in different ways to the no-take philosophy underpinning much of Western conservation practice.

“Our goal is not conservation: it’s preservation,” says Tīmoti. “Because if we’re going to conserve an environment just to look at it, that’s only one part of our identity that’s being preserved.”

Monica Evans is a freelance writer, researcher and community development practitioner. She lives in a small town on New Zealand’s wild West Coast.


Lyver, P.O., Richardson, S.J., Gormley, A.M., Tīmoti, P., Jones, C.J.,& Tahi, B.L. (2018) Complementarity of indigenous and western scientific approaches for monitoring forest state.Ecological Applications28.

Lyver, P.O., Tīmoti, P., Jones, C.J. et al. (2017). An indigenous community-based monitoring system for assessing forest health in New Zealand.Biodiversity Conservation26: 3183.

Tīmoti, P., Lyver, P.O., Matamua, R., Jones, C.J., and Tahi, B.L. (2017). A representation of aTuawhenua worldview guides environmental conservation.Ecology and Society22:20.

This article was written by Monica Evans and first published by Mongabay.com on 21 Dec 2018.


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