Zak Horomia, chairman of Hinemaurea ki Mangatuna marae (Photo: Josie McClutchie; additional design: Tina Tiller)
Zak Horomia, chairman of Hinemaurea ki Mangatuna marae (Photo: Josie McClutchie; additional design: Tina Tiller)

Ngā Pae o te MāramatangaDecember 21, 2021

A threat to our identity: The impact of climate change on Māori

Zak Horomia, chairman of Hinemaurea ki Mangatuna marae (Photo: Josie McClutchie; additional design: Tina Tiller)
Zak Horomia, chairman of Hinemaurea ki Mangatuna marae (Photo: Josie McClutchie; additional design: Tina Tiller)

A new report from Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga and Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research reveals how Māori will be affected by climate change in future, and how they’re already feeling the impacts. 

This story was created in paid partnership with Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga.

Hinemaurea ki Mangatuna marae sits on the banks of the Uawa river, 10km north of Tolaga Bay as SH35 climbs north up the East Cape towards Tokomaru Bay. It’s a remote and wild part of Aotearoa. When Zak Horomia, chairman of the marae, was growing up on the East Coast, the awa and moana were pristine, even after the most severe storms. But as he grew older, things started to change.

“Back then, there were no issues with forestry slash, or with flooding, or rubbish. You could swim in the river safely, you could go fishing and eeling without getting snagged on anything. We used to have lush paddocks, everything was green. Then the droughts started.”

Horomia’s experiences, and those of tangata whenua around the country, are the subject of a new report: He huringa āhuarangi, he huringa ao: a changing climate, a changing world. The report from Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga and Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research synthesises and brings together the existing research on the climate change risks that face New Zealand through a whakaaro Māori lens, creating an important tool for whānau, iwi and hapū.  

“A few years ago that didn’t exist,” says co-author Dr Shaun Awatere (Ngāti Porou), resource economist for Landcare Research. “There was a national climate change risk assessment done for the entire country but the gap was a deeper dive into what it means for Māori, and this report provides that.” 

The report, produced by a multidisciplinary Māori research team working across 10 research institutions, considers the effects of climate change on everything from Māori business to the preservation of tikanga Māori in the face of global warming. It calls for the development of Māori cultural indicators and values for assessing the health of ecosystems on land and in the sea, and from the macro to the micro. 

Hinemaurea ki Mangatuna marae on the East Coast is the soul of the community (Photo: Josie McClutchie)

The effects of climate change can already be seen in the coastal marine area, the largest ecological domain in Aotearoa, the report finds. These ecosystems, comprising harbours, estuaries and the open ocean, are showing signs of damage including rising sea levels, water temperature and increasing ocean acidity. 

The changing habitat drives movements in the distribution of native species and creates prolific conditions for the establishment of invasive pests and diseases. Following a marine heatwave that stretched across 2017 and 2018, the complete loss of rimurapa (bull kelp) was recorded on reefs around Lyttelton. The native kelp was quickly replaced by an invasive pest species of kelp which caused a loss in the mussel population. 

On the Otago Peninsula, warming seas are leading to a decline in hoiho survival rates due to the reduction in size and quality of the fish stock on which they feed. Elsewhere, sightings of tropical and warm water fish, alien to New Zealand, have increased, while the reproduction of important commercial and customary species such as pāua and hoki has declined.

Acidification of the ocean is also harmful to organisms that rely on calcification, like molluscs, starfish and sea urchins. Kina in particular hold significant social and cultural value for whānau, hapū and iwi. 

In low-lying areas, climate change-induced sea level rise may permanently submerge estuaries, tidal marshes and wetlands, destroying sources of mahinga kai. Increased flooding will also contaminate waterways with trash and debris, as has been seen on the East Coast. 

Awatere says that failures to sustain cultural keystone species will have consequences for Māori values, both spiritually and culturally. The loss in species will also be mirrored by a loss in mātauranga Māori as the connections between whakataukī, reo and the natural world fray.

Depleted stocks are likely to have an effect on customary fishing rights – non-commercial quotas allocated to Māori for the gathering of kai – a context by which tangata whenua engage with the sea physically and metaphysically. And although customary harvests cannot be sold, they nevertheless have economic impacts for Māori communities as important sources of food that would otherwise require purchase to feed whānau and for large events like tangihanga. 

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People also maintains that indigenous peoples have the right to their traditional medicines, the conservation of their animals and to see their lands flourish. Climate change puts Māori access to all those resources at risk. 

“The Crown has an obligation to protect Māori rights and interests with respect to natural resources including fish. There is an obligation to make sure that customary rights are acknowledged and upheld and supported,” says Awatere. This raises significant issues into the future around changing species and what redress quota holders might have. 

Hinemaurea ki Mangatuna marae sits on the banks of banks of the Uawa river, 10km north of Tolaga Bay on the North Island’s East Cape (Photo: Josie McClutchie)

Legal recognition of rāhui is one tool in the kete of policy instruments that can help manage fisheries, says Awatere. But equally important is the role of iwi and hapū Māori within the governance of fisheries and oceans.

“In that higher level you are able to provide the conditions for how we want to interact with our oceans and our environment. It’s at that stage where you can set out a vision which is beyond just a basic extraction of those resources.” 

The effects of depleted fish stocks are more than cultural, however; significant fisheries assets are concentrated in these keystone species. 

Climate change poses significant problems for the $68 billion Māori economy. Taken together, the manufacturing and natural resource-based sectors comprise around 68% of all Māori businesses. Māori collectively own a third of all fisheries by quota, and 20% by value. 

There is a strong and growing Māori interest in fisheries, including inter-iwi and commercial joint-venture partnerships. But almost half of all Māori fisheries assets by value are concentrated in species vulnerable to climate change-driven acidification, like koūra and pāua. Research regarding other high-value species like snapper and hoki needs more analysis, says Awatere, while research on other wild fish stocks including gurnard, ling and tarakihi is lacking entirely.

Māori investment into high-value species has created economic benefits, but also exposed the industry to significant climate change-related risks that are evident in marine tourism. Dr Mark Orams from Massey University has estimated that a single humpback whale generates over a million dollars in tourism revenue during its 50-year life. Operators like Whale Watch Kaikōura, a Māori-owned tourism business that serviced around 80,000 customers a year before Covid-19, depend on the reliable appearance of these giant mammals. Fluctuations in their migratory patterns suggest huge obstacles to tourism businesses in this space. 

Land-based businesses will struggle too, says Awatere. From 2006 to 2016, Māori capital investment in the forestry sector grew by 68%. These pine forests are particularly vulnerable to fire hazards that will accompany drier conditions, particularly in the north and east of the country. Severe weather patterns like floods can also create extremely dangerous run-off, where huge quantities of forestry slash is carried down mountainous terrain and into habited areas and waterways. 

Zak Horomia in 2018 standing on the slash washed down from the hills into Uawa (Tolaga Bay) (Photo: Josie McClutchie)

On the East Coast, slash events have caused huge damage in recent years. Zak Horomia recalls waterways filled with logs, stretching upwards of 14km back to Tolaga Bay. 

“You used to put hīnaki in the river without getting snagged. There is a lot of bloody debris on the river beds now. The forestry companies cut the trees in the hills and then in flooding it all comes down and makes a bloody mess,” he says. 

“It degrades the mauri of the area. All the oldies remember what it was like growing up here, and it is no longer the same as it was. How come we have all this rubbish in our rivers? And on the beach? They might as well take the mill down there and mill what’s on the beach – big, huge logs. Export logs.” 

The combination of long droughts and intense flooding may also wreak havoc on dairy, beef and sheep farming, the report says. Cattle begin to experience heat stress in temperatures above 25°C, which will be more common as the climate continues to warm. Māori-held farms tend to occupy hilly and mountainous geography that’s susceptible to erosion, flooding and intense rainfall.

Other urban property holdings in low-lying areas of Christchurch, Auckland and Wellington are susceptible to sea level rise. But, more significantly, many cultural and traditional sites like papa kāinga, marae, urupā and mahinga kai are incredibly vulnerable. The destruction of these sites would have wide-ranging effects on whakapapa, identity and rangatiratanga.

“There are urupā on the coast that get flooded, but what can you do?” says Horomia. “The whānau clean them up, and we try and make it beautiful again, but unfortunately as we get more rain… and there’s a lot more heavy rain than there was when I was growing up.”

Whānau in Horomia’s rohe have discussed moving the marae. During the first severe floods in the early 2000s, the marae board tabled relocating the marae to higher country, but the idea faced resistance from mana whenua who were distraught at the idea of severing the ties to the area. 

“At least half of the whānau didn’t want to, and so we put up the flood banks,” says Horomia. “They didn’t want to move because of the tikanga there, because of the memorial gates that wouldn’t have been the same once they were removed. The connections go back to Ropiha Hautapu who donated that land and the marae to the people.

“It wouldn’t be the same if we moved.”

Zak Horomia inside the fortified gates of Hinemaurea ki Mangatuna marae that protect it from flooding (Photo: Josie McClutchie)

Instead, the marae was turned into a water-tight fortress. As it is situated on low-lying whenua, floodgates and specialised pump systems have been installed to quickly drain water from the marae grounds, and the perimeter is fortified with concrete and breakwaters. Even still, the increasing severity of flooding and the accompanying slash events concerns Horomia.

“I really worry about another flood. I’m always at the marae checking it.” 

The effects of climate change on marae and urupā has significant implications for Māori mental health, says co-author of He huringa āhuarangi, he huringa ao, Dr Rhys Jones (Ngāti Kahunungu), senior lecturer at the University of Auckland’s faculty of medical and health sciences.

“There’s a particular dimension to that which is about loss of cultural sites of significance. This is not a new experience for us, obviously; through the process of colonisation there has been massive dispossession of land and other resources. That is threatened even more by the impacts of climate change such as sea level rise and coastal erosion, but also a greater likelihood of extreme weather events and things like flooding. We are likely to see that having major impacts on places like marae and urupā, adding another layer to the cultural burden of climate change.”

The government has an obligation to protect sites of cultural significance, says Jones. Te Tiriti o Waitangi guarantees active protection of taonga, and the history of dispossession demands an active approach by the state.

“The government’s role is not just to limit the extent of climate change, but also to protect and reduce the impact of climate change. The government certainly does have a responsibility, particularly given the historical breaches.”

Climate change is also likely to have detrimental effects on the already compromised and inequitable area of Māori healthcare, says Jones. Māori suffer from disproportionate rates of conditions like asthma and rheumatic fever, which are likely to be exacerbated by extreme weather conditions and increasing food insecurity.

“Asthma is a really important condition in this whole area because the impacts are disproportionately borne by Māori in terms of respiratory disease,” says Jones. “One of the impacts of climate change is that it will increase allergens, particularly at certain times of the year. And that has a clear impact on people who have asthma and is likely to increase the severity of asthma. 

“It will exacerbate the inequities that are already there. Similarly so for some of the other respiratory conditions or cardiovascular diseases that put people at higher risk of things like heat-related illness.”

But mātauranga Māori offers solutions that may both mitigate the effects of climate change through increased community resilience as well as create benefits with flow-on effects throughout te ao Māori, Jones says. 

“Mātauranga Māori can also lead us to solutions that are in some ways more innovative and can help to address those multiple challenges more effectively. For example, around housing, from an indigenous perspective we might think about housing development as creating a sort of extended family living arrangement, and providing for community housing.”

“I think we should have optimism because one of the positive things in this whole area is that a lot of the changes that we need to make to respond to the threat of climate change will also be beneficial in many other areas, in terms of improving health outcomes and potentially actually contributing to achieving equity and health.”  

Beyond physical health, Māori identity is intrinsically tied to the environment. Dr Pauline Harris, senior lecturer at the Centre for Science in Society at Victoria University and co-author of the report, says Māori holistic understanding of their relationship with the world around them means they’re acutely aware of the impacts of climate change. But it also means they’re uniquely well placed to guide the response. 

“For Māori we are inherently connected by whakapapa to the environment and everything around us. Through our belief systems and how we were brought up, our connections to the land and the whole world around us grounds us in our relationship and responsibility to the environment,” says Harris.

“Having the fundamental connection and understanding of who you are as a person in relationship to the environment as a whole is something mātauranga Māori can offer to help us all reconnect.”

That reconnection with the environment is essential to start to reset the imbalance in how we treat the planet, says Harris. To mitigate and slow the effects of climate change, we must change the way we live as individuals, she says. That change in behaviour starts with creating a greater connection with the natural world. 

“Understanding that reconnection and the influence you have on the environment and how to live in a more sustainable way is something that mātauranga Māori can contribute to Aotearoa.”

Māori communities have an intimate understanding of Aotearoa, and that knowledge allows them to observe and record the changes happening to their environment, she says. These communities are already seeing major impacts of climate change, pollution and predators on the rivers, beaches, forests and species. 

“Our whānau who have been living on the land for a long time know how things have changed. Even when I was growing up, I remember what the rivers used to be like – we used to always swim in them every summer,” she says.

“My daughter never grew up swimming in rivers as now many are so polluted or overgrown with algae. How we are impacting the environment is affecting how we live, what we do and what we experience.” she says.

Forestry slash litters the East Coast (Photo: Josie McClutchie)

Te reo, tikanga and mātauranga Māori are intertwined around the natural world, each thread making the other possible. Environmental changes driven by climate change present obstacles to the practice of customs, the retention of traditional knowledge, and the relevance of tikanga like whakataukī that traditionally help Māori make sense of existence.

Taonga species are not just a resource, but a source of physical and spiritual sustenance. Degradation of the mauri of an ecosystem may have deleterious effects on the tikanga associated with that system, says Awatere.  

Functional mātauranga requires a stable and harmonious system in which patterns and predictions can actually assist decision making. When climate change disrupts the balance of the seasons, migrational patterns and weather systems, traditional knowledge is harder to apply.

“More work needs to be done in this space as well in terms of linkages between climate change effects on our ecosystems and how that is changing our seasonal variability, the abundance and the locations of species.” 

The maramataka, or Māori lunar calendar, tracks the movements and phases of the moon, and the effects on the natural environment. But as the environment reacts to the effects of climate change, the maramataka must adjust and adapt in order to more accurately predict and describe the behaviours of ecosystems, says Awatere. There is work being done to fully understand the knowledge that various iwi and hapū have of their local ecosystems through the various seasons, but the challenges of climate change mean that is only the first step in preserving a functional maramataka.

“Once that base knowledge has been recovered, we then need to look at how have those ecosystems changed, given the current impact on them. What should be there, what is there, and what might be there in the future? What cumulative impacts does climate change have?”

The reo is closely connected to the taiao, says Awatere, which lends sounds from birds, animals and weather patterns. Whakataukī are also developed around the behaviours of those environments and animals, and try to create analogies for human behaviour in order to give guidance around how Māori should conduct themselves.

“The IPCC said that climate change poses a risk not only to the wellbeing of indigenous people but the knowledge they have due to the degradation of ecosystems and the impacts they are going to experience from climate change, whether that’s directly through extreme weather events, or indirectly through health-related impacts. 

“With the loss of ecosystems, there is going to be the loss of indigenous knowledge. This report is unique in the national context.”

The community has worked to protect Hinemaurea ki Mangatuna marae from climate change (Photo: Josie McClutchie)

The displacement of iwi and hapū from low lying coastal areas will similarly disrupt the networks of taonga, whānau, whenua and whakapapa that is the structural lattice beneath relationships in te ao Māori. Research suggests such a disruption would result in a loss of wellbeing, trauma, grief and anxiety. One recommendation offered by the report is the enhancement of formal iwi-led recording programs to capture waiata, whakatauki and karakia associated with cultural landscapes. But collecting knowledge alone will not be enough, says Awatere.

“Iwi and hapū need to be included in the decision making around where people may need to be relocated to. If we look at the planning of big agencies like Auckland Council, they are actively engaging with mana whenua to develop these climate change adaptation plans that are informed by a whakaaro Māori perspective. They recognise that there is a Treaty of Waitangi relationship. However those processes are not always implemented well by some regional councils – as minister Mahuta puts it, there may be an issue with capability development.”

Awatere hopes the report will lend iwi and hapū groups the authority to engage with local and central government on more informed and equal terms. Systemic barriers often manifest themselves in difficulties around bureaucratic literacy, says Awatere, and the report provides a meaningful toolkit for whānau, iwi and hapū to mitigate such obstacles.

“There are parallels between the Covid response and the response to climate change. Some agencies are slower on the uptake in regards to getting tangata whenua on board. I hope we don’t see the same mistakes repeated.” 


He huringa āhuarangi, he huringa ao: a changing climate, a changing world was authored by Shaun Awatere (Ngāti Porou), Manaaki Whenua, Darren Ngaru King (Ngāti Raukawa), Taihoro Nukurangi – NIWA, John Reid (Te Arawa), University of Canterbury, Lewis Williams (Ngāi Te Rangi), University of Western Ontario, Bridgette Masters-Awatere (Te Rarawa, Tūwharetoa ki Kawerau, Ngai te Rangi, Tuwharetoa ki Kawerau), University of Waikato, Pauline Harris (Ngāti Kahungunu, Rongomaiwahine), Victoria University of Wellington, Natasha Tassell-Matamua (Te Ātiawa, Ngāti Makea kei Rarotonga), Massey University, Rhys Jones (Ngāti Kahungunu), University of Auckland, Kevin Eastwood  Te Toi Taiao – Supporting Healthy Environments, John Pirker (Ngāi Tahu), University of Canterbury, Anne-Marie Jackson (Ngāti Whātua, Te Roroa, Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Wai, Ngāti Kahu o Whangaroa), University of Otago

This content was created in partnership with Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga.

Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga is New Zealand’s Māori Centre of Research Excellence. 

The centre has 21 partner research entities, conducting research relevant to Māori communities and is an important contributor to global Indigenous research and affairs.

Mad Chapman, Editor
The Spinoff has covered the news that matters in 2021, most recently the delta outbreak. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

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