Matauranga Maori: how cultural knowledge is changing the way New Zealand responds to disasters

Matauranga Maori: how cultural knowledge is changing the way New Zealand responds to disasters

Deep in the bowels of New Zealand’s government is the ‘bunker’, the donut-shaped crisis command centre which, for the best part of February, was back in action as Cyclone Gabrielle devastated parts of the North Island.

The magnitude of the crisis was quickly apparent: nearly 500 millimetres of rain fell on Gisborne in just 24 hours, a town that normally sees less than 65mm in  February. Eleven people died and thousands were displaced. A day after the cyclone a magnitude 4.4 earthquake shook the region. In total, the destruction is expected to cost more than NZ$10 billion (A$9.3 billion).

But after 12 years of earthquakes, fire, disease and floods, the reaction to this crisis was different: for the first time a small corps of Maori advisors were also inside the bunker to help mobilise iwi (tribes) as part of the formal disaster response.

Aerial shot of flooded river
The Turanganui River overflowing in Gisborne on 17 February 2023. Credit: Phil Yeo / Getty Images

Matauranga Maori — literally ‘Maori knowledge’ — is becoming part of New Zealand’s emergency management and will not only mobilise some of the NZ$70 billion worth of iwi assets for disaster relief, but add to the body of research around mitigation and resilience, Dr Christine Kenney told Cosmos Weekly.

She should know: Kenney has built an academic career looking at how the Maori way of doing things can enhance disaster response and mitigation — her most recent work is tacking a shift from command-and-control approaches to collaboration. Chasing her down for an interview meant waiting for the latest crisis to improve: she was also down in that bunker, as a ministerial science advisor.

For Maori, matauranga is a living body of knowledge that encompasses the likes of language, culture, traditional practices in medicine, and the environment, and cultivation.

“When I think about matauranga Maori, everything is connected.”

Dr Christine Kenney

“When I think about matauranga Maori, everything is connected. Land, flora and fauna, people, seasonal cycles and matauranga Maori is that sophisticated bank of not just knowledge, but understanding, and the skill sets to apply it at the right way in the right time,” Kenney says.

New Zealand’s embrace of matauranga Maori isn’t without controversy, but in a country where two-thirds of the population live near a coastline and is at real risk from climate change-induced sea level rise, the concept has been given intellectual legitimacy by a government keen to find solutions inside and outside the scientific and civil defence establishment.

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Inside the bunker

In crises past, Maori were left to organise their own response, supplying places to stay in marae (meeting places), organising welfare checks and, in Christchurch in 2011, medical teams, all outside the formal disaster infrastructure.

As New Zealand reforms its disaster management regulations to be fit for a climate-ravaged future, Maori are being brought inside the disaster response bunker.

The NZ government began to reform the emergency management system following the 2016 Kaikoura earthquake and the 2017 Port Hill fire. In 2021 Minister for Emergency Management, Kiri Allan, announced a raft of reforms. In addition to clarifying the roles of the national, regional and local levels, the Emergency Management bill will include Maori members on joint committees and establish a national Maori advisory group.

As New Zealand reforms its disaster management regulations to be fit for a climate-ravaged future, Maori are being brought inside the disaster response bunker.

“The Bill will also better enable Māori throughout the system, at governance, planning and operational levels – by recognising the crucial role Māori and marae play in community responses to emergencies,” Allan said.

At the same time, serious science funding is now available for researchers integrating mātauranga Māori perspectives into their work, under the 2007 Ministry of Research, Science and Technology (MoRST) “Vision Mātauranga” policy.

And last year, the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) launched a six-year science strategy for scientific engagement in emergency management and resilience, drawing on research, mātauranga Māori and technical expertise.

Yellow hills in drought
A 2013 drought in New Zealand. Parts of the country have also seen several droughts in the last decade. Credit: GordonImages / Getty Images

What this means is engaging with oral histories of places, such as the early research into a “myth” of a tidal wave on D’Urville Island indicates that, or a similar event, was indeed the cause of the settlement abandonment, not climate change.

The collaboration will engage traditional knowledge of resources and cultivation practices, and use of local knowledge of plants and weather to inform food security.

Picking up the pieces before the next disaster

If Cyclone Gabrielle is an indicator of what New Zealand needs to expect in future, researchers in the Vision Matauranga division of the national climate change adaptation project “Deep South Challenge” are already preparing.

Food security in a changing climate is a key issue the researchers are chasing, as are climate-resilient meeting places as these form the hub of Maori responses in times of disaster. These projects are due wind up later this year.

Apples scattered on damaged road
Apples left behind by receding floodwaters in Napie., on the east coast of the North Island. Credit: Kerry Marshall / Stringer / Getty Images

“In the next couple of years we’ll see a whole lot of different ideas coming down through that cogeneration of knowledge,” says Sandra Morrison, project leader of Vision Matauranga.

Morrison says the alignment of “different knowledge systems” can inform where New Zealanders rebuild – and how they can cope in a climate-uncertain world. 

“It’s as simple as, even before building starts, of cities, homes or towns, that it’s useful to consult the local hapu [subtribe] for the history of the landscape. In their history, it may determine whether that’s the most appropriate place to build,” she tells Cosmos Weekly.

Aerial shot of flooded streets in town
An aerial photo provided by the New Zealand Defense Force on 16 February, 2023, at Hawke’s Bay. Via Xinhua News Agency / Getty Images

One example is the flooding in and around Auckland before Cyclone Gabrielle struck, which killed two people in the Wairau valley.

“‘Wairau’ means a huge abundance of water. If [the early developers] had known that before building, they could have checked with hapu about the nature of the landscape,” she says.

“Some of this knowledge can be directly applied to place, and what has happened historically, and the other is around the processes of crisis management and what is important. To give some consolation and spiritual offerings to people.”

At Te Toi Whakaruruhau o Aotearoa, the Māori Disaster Risk Reduction Centre helmed by Kenney, published research is centred around earthquake resilience and management, and climate change. 

Science versus matauranga: is it science or culture?

New Zealand’s embrace of matauranga Maori is controversial in some parts of the scientific community.

Just last week [March 4], Richard Dawkins wrote in The Spectator criticising New Zealand’s decision to elevate matauranga Maori to equal status within the national curriculum.

Read more: Water laws in Australia can incorporate Indigenous knowledge

Before that, an open letter in 2021 by seven academics in The Listener magazine expressed fears of matauranga Maori given intellectual parity on one hand, while science was demonised as “a Western European invention and itself evidence of European dominance” on the other.

“In the discovery of empirical, universal truths, [matauranga Maori] falls far short of what we can define as science,” the open letter said.

This view was roundly derided by universities and the Royal Society of New Zealand. But behind the opposition is an assumption of indigeneity as a primitive identity, one which can’t deliver modern insights.

Aerial shot of river with broken pipes
Gisborne, 20 February. Several mains water pipes were destroyed by Cyclone Gabrielle, seriously restricting water to over 30,000 people in the town. Credit: Phil Yeo / Getty Images

“There is a tendency to fall back on simplistic notions of tradition, language, and culture as constituting an unchanging ‘authentic’ essence of Māori identity,” wrote New Zealand scholar on indigeneity, Evan Poata-Smith.

He said Maori collective identities are often seen as being perpetually “primordial or naturalistic” and unchanging.

Read more: Multicultural communities’ strengths against emergencies

But matauranga Maori is not an island stranded in time and is an evolving body of knowledge, Kenney says.

Furthermore, putting it up against science as an alternative is flawed, says Massey University Professor of Natural Hazards, Jonathan Proctor.

“If we take a strictly Eurocentric view, science is a very defined topic,” he told Cosmos Weekly. “But science today is hugely varied and not just those fundamental topics developed hundreds of years ago. It’s looking for solutions, how we can tackle some of the big problems around our world and that requires a multidisciplinary approach.”

“It’s not a competition that one is better than the other, it’s mainly an acknowledgment that there are a number of knowledge systems that exist.”

Sandra Morrison

Or as Morrison says, it’s not a beauty contest.

“It’s not a competition that one is better than the other, it’s mainly an acknowledgment that there are a number of knowledge systems that exist and that all need to be given some consideration.”

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