How climate change could throw Māori culture off-balance

  • Māori culture is at risk due to predicted changes in the ranges of two culturally important native plants, kuta and kūmarahou.
  • Under projected climate change models, traditional weavers will face a shortage of kuta, a grass-like sedge used for weaving, in their ancestral harvesting sites.
  • Kūmarahou, a shrub used for medicinal purposes, will become more abundant, devaluing the plant as a form of cultural currency in Māori tradition.

Many hundreds of years ago, the first Polynesian boats arrived on the shores of what is now known as New Zealand.  In the vast blue of the Pacific Ocean, the existence of permanent land was anything but certain. The land gave these ancient travelers, who are now known as the Māori, a chance to develop a unique culture deeply tied to the solid earth where they could set foot.

“These ideas inform the concept of tūrangawaewae — a place to stand,” said expert Māori weaver Te Hemo Ata Henare, co-author of a recent People and Nature study, in a press release about the research. “This is traditionally expressed through a people’s relationship with particular places, such as a mountain.”

Concepts like tūrangawaewae are critical to many indigenous cultures, but these profound ties to the land are rarely included in conservation or climate change research. However, a new collaborative research team, which included scientists as well as Māori cultural leaders like Henare, investigated how climate change could throw this ancient relationship into flux.

“We developed a new method of analyzing climate change impacts at scales that affect local communities,” study author and University of Hawaii doctoral student Matthew O. Bond said in the press release.

The researchers modeled how two species of native plants, kuta (Eleocharis sphacelata) and kūmarahou (Pomaderris kumeraho), would respond to predicted changes in climate, and analyzed how those changes might impact the ability of native Māori people to access the culturally important plants. The complex model included “socioecological” factors, such as tribal boundaries and the traditional practices of different tribes, to investigate how changes might impact culture.

The banks of Lake Kaiwai are ringed with a variety of wetland species native to New Zealand, including kuta, one of the plants studied. Lake Kaiwai is a source of many natural resources that are highly valued by the indigenous Māori people. Image by Matthew O. Bond.

“This means that although the species themselves are not threatened by climate change, the human knowledge, history, and use of these plants is in danger,” Bond said, adding, “This potential loss would have ramifications for Māori culture on regional and national scales.”

New Zealand is made up of around 600 islands. The two largest are the North Island and the South Island, which are also officially known by their traditional Māori names: Te Ika-a-Maui and Te Waipounamu, respectively.

“Because New Zealand is a very long thin country that stretches through the latitudes, environmental conditions in the north are very different from the south,” said study co-author Priscilla Wehi, who lives with her family on the South Island.

Kuta is predicted to see a decrease in range as the climate changes, while kūmarahou will actually spread further throughout New Zealand. Both outcomes, say the researchers, could be harmful to Māori culture.

Climate change, the human-caused warming of the planet resulting from greenhouse gas emissions, calls to mind images of melting glaciers and widespread forest fires. These catastrophic effects are some of the most severe symptoms of the global problem, but the changing climate will also have subtler effects. As regional temperatures change, different plants and animals are likely to move to areas with more suitable climatic conditions or potentially face extinction. In some cases, warmer temperatures will cause the ranges of these organisms to expand, potentially encroaching on the territories of other species.

Waning access puts native art in jeopardy

“Kuta is beautiful — very golden and soft when it’s dry,” Wehi said in a press release. The native sedge, which grows in increasingly rare wetland habitats, is prized for its use in traditional weaving. Other plants may be used for weaving, but the authors note that their quality isn’t the same.

The Māori weave traditional arts and products, like these mats and hats, out of dried kuta. Image by Matthew O. Bond.

For Henare, the cultural value of kuta isn’t just in its texture; the experience begins with harvesting, an arduous task she said is still practiced by only a handful of local weavers.

“Some areas you have to swim long distances and dive deep to harvest, and in others you need a [four-wheel-drive] vehicle to get there,” she said in the press release. In spite of the difficulty in accessing kuta, harvesting it is important to familial and tribal relationships; knowledge of harvesting sites is often passed from one generation to the next.

“As customary practice, you take food to share, this then means long talks, lots of cups of tea. Half the day is gone then you have to quickly harvest before dark,” she said.

For older Māori, the process conjures a pleasant nostalgia for the continuation of tradition. “[It] excites them to know that someone is still continuing practices of old,” Henare said.

Unfortunately for some of the kuta gatherers on the North Island, these customs may soon draw to an end.

Researchers Te Hemo Ata Henare, Matariki Wehi and Priscilla Wehi talk with land trustees Loris Halliday and Erina Halliday Walter to explain their research and learn more about the land. Image by Matthew O. Bond.

Water-loving New Zealand plants like kuta already face considerable strain from habitat loss: 90 percent of all the wetlands in New Zealand have been destroyed since the arrival of European settlers.

“For wetland species like kuta, protecting the watershed is a critical consideration,” Wehi told Mongabay. The range of the plant is predicted to shrink as the remaining northern wetlands become less suitable due to the changing climate — although suitable conditions will increase further south.

“[Kuta] will probably grow well in the south of New Zealand in the future, but the treasured populations in the north are likely to be under threat. And of course, [the north] is where many of the weavers who use this plant [live],” Bond said in the press release.

Māori people rely on access to these ancestral harvesting sites to maintain their direct connection to their homeland. The researchers say the loss of access to plants also often means a loss in biocultural knowledge — something which, once gone, may be lost forever.

Devaluing a cultural currency

Kūmarahou, unlike kuta, is predicted to have a significantly expanded range throughout New Zealand in response to the changing climate. At first glance, the range expansion of kūmarahou might seem to be a good thing — but not so fast, say the researchers. They write in their paper that the increased availability of valuable plants like kūmarahou can destabilize delicate cultural relationships that rely on trading goods.

“Cultural currency is still practiced amongst many tribes. Our tupuna [ancestors] often exchanged resources,” Henare said in the press release.

Kūmarahou is a native plant used for medicinal purposes by the Māori. “Many Māori families use [it] for coughs and respiratory ailments,” Wehi told Mongabay. Kūmarahou’s value isn’t just as a traditional medicine — it’s also a means to connect with other people.

These preserved herbarium specimens of kūmarahou, left, and kuta were accessed at the University of Canterbury. Scientific specimens record where the plant was collected from, when it was collected, and other data that scientists can use to understand things like climate change, invasive species and habitat destruction. Images by Matthew O. Bond.

“I live in the South Island where kūmarahou doesn’t grow,” Wehi told Mongabay. “We ask relations or friends living in the North [Island] to harvest [it] for us, and send or bring it down to where we live. We then reciprocate in other ways for these gifts.”

Widespread availability of kūmarahou could mean an end to this meaningful practice of trading and gift-giving, upsetting cultural norms and connections.

Seeking a balance

The story of kuta and kūmarahou isn’t just a story about plants; it’s about people, and the desire to connect to something greater.

“It is who we are! Māori know we came from the earth and one day we will all return to the earth,” Henare said.

The Māori are believed to have arrived in what is now New Zealand more than 700 years ago, and have maintained a strong cultural identity in spite of European settlement. Wehi said the Māori are innovative, and won’t give up their cultural connection to the earth in the face of environmental disaster either.

“Many weavers, as well as others, are vocal about current challenges such as pollution or the draining of wetlands and are pushing for environmental cleanup,” she said, adding that some Māori have already begun to try relocating kuta from areas with high climate risk to wetlands where they’ll be safer.

The authors say they hope their work will encourage other groups to take cultural boundaries into account when planning conservation research.

“Cultures … change with the times,” Wehi said in the press release, “However, it is really important that we protect the ecosystems that exist now, and the relationships that people have with nature.”




Bond, M. O., Anderson, B. J., Henare, T. H. A., & Wehi, P. M. (2019). Effects of climatically shifting species distributions on biocultural relationships. People and Nature1(1), 87-102. doi:10.1002/pan3.15

This story first appeared on Mongabay

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