Mātauranga providing indigenous answers to climate change alongside science

I was somewhat sceptical of this at first, but after reading through I see some merit in working with indigenous people  on climate change, using local knowledge to combat the possible effects of climate change.

It is alarming how narrowly some scientists view world problems like climate change.

Stuff:  Climate change scientists look to Māori and other indigenous people for answers

They are not looking to them for all the answers, but for valuable local knowledge.

In the Māoriland Hub in Ōtaki, north of Wellington, an exhibition details how bad climate change will get for locals in the Kāpiti Horowhenua region, where the frequency of heavy rainfall, flooding, erosion and landslides is already on the rise.

It includes a striking set of maps that draw on Māori knowledge systems of whakapapa (genealogy), hīkoi (walking) and kōrero tuku iho (ancestral knowledge) in combination with scientific data and intuitive design, to show what the local landscape will look like 30 and 100 years from now.

What it could look like in 30 and 100 years. No one knows exactly how landscapes will lok decades or a century ahead.

It’s part of a Massey University project co-led by Professor Huhana Smith (Ngāti Tukorehe, Ngāti Raukawa ki Te Tonga) that aims to combine knowledge from Māori researchers, architects, artists and scientists.

Huhana explains that climate change is not being communicated in a way that relates to the Māori communities who are most at risk from its impacts. This has a knock-on effect on national vulnerability, so her project seeks to forge a new way of sharing knowledge about climate change, based on “mātauranga.

Mātauranga is the body of traditional and contemporary knowledge about the world – both physical and spiritual – held by Māori. It is also the process by which information is observed, tested, interpreted, built upon and handed down. It is inseparable from Māori culture, values and beliefs. Māori consider themselves part of nature and within it, and mātauranga reflects this.

It is useful knowledge to have, but not the only knowledge required.

“Māori consider themselves part of nature” – in general perhaps. Some will more than others. And non-Māori as well, especially those who have lived and worked on the land and water through generations.

This knowledge was developed over millennia and brought here hundreds of years ago by Polynesian explorers, with successive generations of Māori continually adding to it. Because it dates so far back, mātauranga can reveal things about Aotearoa – including what its climate was like before Europeans arrived – that science alone cannot.

I think that science will be by far the main source of accurate historical knowledge.

At last year’s Asia-Pacific Climate Change conference in Manila, speakers from Indonesia, Vanuatu, Sri Lanka, Maldives, and the Philippines discussed the merits of coupling data with the kind of knowledge held by indigenous communities to develop policies that are “local to global”.

Around the world, scientists are increasingly looking to work with indigenous communities on climate change initiatives. A large-scale report that sought to quantify the contribution of indigenous forest guardians in 37 tropical countries concluded that the cheapest and most efficient way to protect forests and sequester carbon was to protect or expand the land rights of indigenous people.

Abuse of indigenous land rights of is causing major problems in places like Asia and the Amazon. I think we are largely past this now here in New Zealand.

In New Zealand, Niwa, Lincoln University, Massey University, and Landcare Research have all added mātauranga strands to their work, and the government’s Deep South Challenge, which will allocate more mātauranga funding in July, currently has eight Maori-led projects on the go. Together these represent the largest ever Māori-led research into climate change.

Dr Jane Richardson, Massey University’s Sustainability Project Manager and Research Portfolio Co-ordinator at Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research, says that mātauranga has broadened her mind. “At first I found this project challenging as I had to learn how to adopt a more unstructured, multidisciplinary way of thinking,” she says.

“As a scientist, I’m trained to think in a very structured, linear way with quite rigid planning and methodology. But the greater fluidity of mātauranga creates space for ideas and answers to emerge.”

Climate scientist Professor Martin Manning at Victoria University recalls the first time he saw the value of having different perspectives, at a meeting for developing a major international scientific report on climate change.

That sounds rather alarming. I would have thought that an essential part of good science was considering different perspectives.

“We had to decide the most important questions to cover,” he says. “Some of us said that it was cloud height changing, others said that the fate of the Amazon forest was critical, and so on. But then a scientist from Vancouver said this was all minor compared to the real question, which was how society responds to major changes. There was a bit of a stunned silence, because most of us had never thought about that before.”

I’m a bit stunned too. Societal effects and responses must be a major factor in addressing climate change.

Climate scientists are turning to indigenous communities, partly because they have often been in the same place for centuries. “Indigenous people who live in really cold places like Alaska are talking about unusual changes in their environment – like how local lakes are thawing out much faster than they used to,” says Dr Pauline Harris (Ngāti Kuhungunu, Rongomaiwahine), a lecturer at Victoria University who chairs the Society of Māori Astronomy Research and Traditions (SMART). “When I heard this, I started to wonder whether Māori communities might be seeing similar changes in our environment too.”

Dr Harris and her team of researchers are visiting iwi and hapū throughout the country to capture mātauranga about many different plant and animal activities – such as feeding, reproducing and hibernating – to find out if these are now happening earlier or later than in the past. “We’re asking whānau if they’ve noticed anything changing in places like forests over the last 50 years, capturing this using voice recorders and writing it down,” she says.

That should not be confined to Māori  whanau.

I have noticed local changes over the last 20 years. There will be many gardeners, especially those who have kept diaries, who will have useful knowledge about seasonal changes.

Māori have a deep understanding of what wildlife activities happen when, and how these activities synchronise with the Sun, Moon and stars throughout the year. They have used this knowledge to create the maramataka – the Māori calendar – by which they also plan activities such as planting, hunting and fishing. When the kōwhai blooms, for example, this is a sign for some communities that it’s time to plant the kūmara.

Liliana Clarke (Ngāti Porou, Waikato, Te Rarawa, Ngapuhi) is a maramataka specialist at SMART, working on the same project as Harris.

“The maramataka is not just for sustenance but also travelling, cultural activities and rituals, and predicting energy levels for certain activities and species. It’s something that we live our entire lives by,” she says.

Clarke adds that a lot of people are starting to go back to having maramataka-based food gardens, or māra kai, because they want local, sustainable food, which supermarkets aren’t supplying.

There are other people doing this in different ways.

There is potential for mātauranga and science to work together on making larger-scale food production more sustainable, particularly as climate change alters the environment of many crop-growing regions.

Large scale food production is modern and quite different to sustainable farming, but could learn from small scale production experiences.

Dr Apanui Skipper (Te Whānau-a-Apanui, Ngāti Tamaterā, Ngāti Raukawa) and Niwa scientist Darren King (Ngāti Raukawa) have been capturing knowledge from Māori communities about signs in the environment that can be used to make short-term and long-term weather forecasts. Their most recent work is with Ngāi Tahu in the South Island.

“The weather and environment is very different there compared to the Coromandel and Eastern Bay of Plenty where we researched earlier, so it’s important we capture knowledge from that region too,” Skipper says.

Metservice and other weather forecasters have become very good, but you need to apply local knowledge to their big picture forecasts. In Dunedin sou-westerly weather can be fickle, because fronts coming from that direction hit the bottom of the South Island and split around the land mass. Sometimes the weather comes up to coast and blasts Dunedin, sometimes the worst of it is deflected out to sea and swings back in further north. That’s why Canterbury can get heavier snow than coastal Otago.

Metservice is usually very good at predicting temperature changes and the timing of fronts hitting particular locations, but is less accurate about the severity of wind or amount of rain, because this can vary a lot locally.

Māori weather forecasting uses the maramataka and involves paying attention to animal behaviours and plant activities that happen when specific weather patterns, such as heavy rainfall or strong winds, are imminent. It also includes atmospheric indicators – such as the shape of volcanic plumes, cloud formations and Sun or Moon halos – along with specific smells and sounds, such as a particular bird cry.

Skipper explains that Māori weather predictions are, like science, consensus-based – where the more indicators that point to a particular scenario, such as a long hot dry summer, the more confident the prediction and the more prepared communities can be.

While worth considering any types of weather predictions is worth doing some scepticism is still required. ‘Red sky at night/morning’ does have some scientific basis but is not always accurate – it can be a warning but is not a promise (like scientific weather forecasts).

Experts in weather forecasting once could predict flooding months ahead with such accuracy that it makes European meteorology look error-prone. But since Europeans arrived, much of that knowledge has been lost, along with many indicators – such as trees that have been cut down.

I’m very sceptical about “with such accuracy”. They may well have been able to predict increased likelihood of certain weather patterns like heavy rain, but would not have been able to predict specific weather events months in advance.

A problem with verbal knowledge and human memory is that it can be quite selective. It’s quite likely that over say a twenty year period flooding is predicted for five of those years but it only actually floods once – there will always be someone who says ‘I told you that would happen’, but rarely do they say ‘I was wrong again this year’.

Skipper also asked communities whether they had noticed any changes over time and what they thought about climate change.

“Everybody I interviewed agreed without a shadow of a doubt that climate change is definitely here,” he says. “The weather now is different from what their grandparents and great-grandparents had seen. Back then, the extreme weather events were predictable, short and sharp – but now they’re a lot wilder.

It’s easier to remember sharp or extreme weather events. I remember a particularly hot and dry summer in 1972/73 – but I was working outside all summer and remember only having one day off in four months for rain.

It’s normal to forget most weather.

And it’s normal to remember recent ‘wilder weather’ than from long ago.

I’ve noticed fewer and less hard frosts and milder winters over the last few years, which could be a sign of climate change, but have not noticed that the weather is getting ‘wilder’.

Kaumātua told Skipper about seeing baby tītī (muttonbirds) starving because their parents cannot find food in the warmer water. Others pointed out that years ago, it would have been impossible to grow kiwifruit and grapes in Invercargill, yet these fruit are now thriving that far south.

That could be due to better selected sites with favourable microclimates.

We have several grape vines and have struggled to get good grapes, and have struggled with tomatoes, but last year I built a hot house around one grape vine and grow tomatoes in it and they are doing very well. It’s still not good for growing stone fruit where I am – but got four apricots on a stunted tree planted ten years ago. Apples and pears haven’t been great either, but two trees planted in a different place – more sheltered – are doing better.

Climate change is also creating more favourable conditions for the spread of pests and diseases into new areas. Researchers are in a race against time to stop kauri dieback before it completely obliterates our unique kauri forests.

Is that because of climate change, or because of the timing of the introduction of the disease? WHAT IS KAURI DIEBACK DISEASE?Phytophthora agathidicida, the pathogen that causes kauri dieback disease, was only discovered in 2009, and formally named in 2015 (previously it was known as Phytophthora taxon Agathis). It is not certain how long the pathogen has been present in New Zealand. We have records that show it has been in New Zealand since the 1970’s and there is some anecdotal evidence that suggest that the disease has been killing kauri since the 1950s, perhaps a lot longer. There is some research to suggest that it came from overseas (probably somewhere in the Indo-Pacific), however the true origin of the disease remains unknown.”. That is contradictory.

Climate doesn’t create pathogens, but it can make conditions more favourable for them to become established. Modern travel makes it far quicker and easier for pathogens to be moved around the world.

While it seems clear that Pākehā and Māori knowledge can work in synergy to create more effective solutions, organisations first need to learn to value Māori expertise.

It pays – literally – to pay attention to mātauranga. “New Zealand thrives on this clean, green and wholesome image,” Black says, “but in actual fact we’re really not. We’ve got crappy rivers, crappy lakes, and now we’ve got dying forests. You’ve got to ask yourself – what tourist is going to want to see dead forests?”

There is more than climate change involved in this. And effects will vary – some forests may struggle more, some could thrive more with changing temperatures and precipitation.

As much knowledge as possible should be gathered and considered – including mātauranga and other local knowledge.

And it should be remembered that not all local knowledge is of equal accuracy and worth.