Image: Auckland Council

Why aren’t people listening? Māori scientists on why rāhui are important

Why are people ignoring the rāhui on the Waitakere Ranges? Māori researchers Melanie Mark-Shadbolt and Dr James Ataria spoke to a number of kaumatua and kaitiaki around the North Island to discuss what can be done to protect our taonga.

In a desperate effort to stop the spread of kauri dieback in their forests, local iwi Te Kawarau-a-Maki have placed a rāhui on the Waitakere Forest (Te Wao Nui a Tiriwa). The rāhui, while supported by Māori throughout Aotearoa, much of the Waitakere community, the Tree Council, Forest & Bird, the Independent Māori Statutory Board (IMSB) and Te Tira Whakamātaki The Māori Biosecurity Network, has not received support from the Auckland Council. The council’s Environment and Community Committee chose to reject the rāhui request made by Te Kawarau-a-Maki, deciding instead to close only high-risk and medium-risk tracks.

So why did the Auckland Council reject the request by Te Kawarau-a-Maki to close the park? Was it because they did not fully understand the concept of a rāhui, or was it because they did not, and do not understand their Treaty obligations?

In late January we spoke to a number of kaumatua and kaitiaki around the North Island and asked them two questions: what is a rāhui? And, in their opinion, why they thought the rāhui wasn’t supported by the Auckland Council.

What is a rāhui?

A rāhui is a form of Māori environmental management utilised by rangatira to modify human behaviour and engagement for the purpose of protecting people and taonga.

A rāhui encompasses both the physical and metaphysical realms and is often designated as esoteric by Western culture. According to the Māori worldview, people and the environment co-exist, and all things (biotic and abiotic) are part of an interconnected system which harmonises tapu and mana to create ‘balance’. When this system comes under stress or pressure a shift occurs, resulting in nature and/or people moving towards a state of disease and disharmony. Rangatira exercising their right as mana whenua and kaitiaki consider the impacts and employ appropriate measures, like rāhui, to restrict human behaviour and activity. This restriction allows nature time to re-establish balance, or its natural or desired state.

A rāhui may be placed on forests, gardens, food gathering areas, rivers, lakes or the sea, and may be placed for a variety of reasons such as claiming ownership, respecting the site of a recent death, the need to replenish food stocks or resources in an area, or to prevent the risk or spread of disease. For example, a rāhui was placed on the taking of seafood in areas that may have been contaminated by oil spilled from the Rena.

The power of a rāhui comes from the mana of the person or group that impose it. For that reason, rāhui can only exist under the mantle of the mana whenua, whose cultural authority as rangatira and kaitiaki affords them power over place and people, and the authority to restrict access in the protection of people, place and nature, until such time that balance is reached or the risks have been mitigated. Pre-colonisation, the infringement of a rāhui could be considered sufficient enough to give rise to war between tribes, or was punishable by death.

We met with Kuia Moana Nui Aukiwa Wood (Ngātirua) in Kaeo and she told us: “Rāhui should be seen as a traditional ‘management system’ for managing the environment. Because rāhui considers physical and metaphysical, or spiritual realms, our systems are often viewed as ‘hocus pocus’ ceremonies that are of little use or importance in protecting our environment.”

However evidence supports the practice of rāhui as a method for controlling human behaviour and allowing nature time to recover. Te Rarawa chair Haami Piripi said that “we have personally seen the evidence for this in Ahipara” where a rāhui was placed to protect marine food stocks. He noted that monitoring has revealed “explosive growth” in paua stocks. Similarly, a rāhui in Karekare in Waitakere in 1993 saw the shellfish recover completely. He also said the power of a rāhui comes from its tapu (sacred) nature and the fear of the consequences for breaching it.

Why wasn’t the rāhui supported by Auckland Council?

The decision to oppose the rāhui is well documented, commercial interests and an inability to monitor and enforce compliance being some of the reasons given. However, in the minds of some Māori, the decision seems more likely to be one of cultural arrogance than practicality. The fact that Māori are both tangata whenua and New Zealand citizens is often not recognised or appreciated when it comes to the management of our natural resources. The decision to not support the rāhui can be viewed as evidence that Māori practices of environmental management are not seen as equal to those that come from non-Māori New Zealanders.

Additionally the decision goes against several pieces of legislation, including the RMA, which require local government to take into account the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi, and to recognise and provide for the particular role of iwi as kaitiaki or guardians of their natural resources. That means the council as a Treaty partner is expected to protect not only the kauri forests, but also Te Kawarau a Maki as the kaitiaki of those forests. Here the council has failed to recognise and meet its obligations under the Treaty, and legislation, by not supporting the rāhui or the decision made by Te Kawarau a Maki.

This now-deleted tweet shows that people are choosing to ignore the mana of the rāhui. Some businesses such as bike tours also continue to operate in Waitakere forest.

Furthermore the decision to not enforce the rāhui, despite the council’s website saying it supports the principles of the rāhui, has not only frustrated Māori but confused visitors to the ranges, and once again revealed the true state of the relationship between Māori people, and those that have assumed authority over our land and people (in this case Auckland Council).

In our own land, Māori leadership with its limited social and political authority, has now being displaced through the ignorant erosion of our cultural authority. The lack of public outcry exposes the apathy prevalent in the community to Māori culture and authority – an attitude that was summarised nicely by a couple quoted in the NZ Herald: “We are Europeans, so we will listen and respect the final word of those who have the power to shut or leave the tracks open.” Te Kawarau-a-Maki, as the council’s partner, do have the power to shut the tracks and have done so.

In a country that exalts and promotes its bicultural roots with its indigenous peoples and the rhetoric of ‘partnership,’ Māori can only marvel at the ignorance and inherent racism exhibited by Auckland Council members and their inability or desire to give effect to their Treaty of Waitangi obligations.

So while the action taken by the council has drawn attention to the meaning of rāhui, the focus on the rāhui itself is overshadowed by a much more ominous realisation: that in this millennium, Māori culture is still not understood, not valued and not recognised. And for that reason we most likely will see the extinction of kauri within our lifetime.

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