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Indigenous knowledge offers solutions, but its use must be based on meaningful collaboration with indigenous communities


As global environmental challenges increase, people and societies are increasingly turning to indigenous knowledge for solutions.

Indigenous knowledge is particularly attractive for tackling climate change, as it encompasses a long history and guidance on how to live with and as part of nature. It is also based on a holistic understanding of interactions between living and nonliving aspects of the environment.

However, without meaningful collaborations with indigenous communities, the use of indigenous knowledge can be tokenistic, extractive and harmful.

Us newly published work explores the concept of kaitiakitanga. This is often translated as guardianship, stewardship or the “principle and practices of intergenerational sustainability”.

We want to encourage western-trained scientists to collaborate with Māori and meaningfully recognize Māori values ​​and knowledge in their conservation and resource management work.

Kaitiakitanga is more than guardianship

Indigenous knowledge includes innovations, observations, and oral and written histories developed over millennia by indigenous peoples around the world.

This knowledge is living, dynamic and evolving. In Aotearoa, New Zealand, mātauranga Māori is the specific knowledge developed by Māori. It includes culture, values ​​and worldview.

The concept of kaitiaki tanga is often (mis)used in the context of conservation and resource management in Aotearoa. In our work, we emphasize how kaitiakitanga is inherently connected to other concepts. It’s hard to translate these concepts directly, but they include tikanga (Māori customs), whakapapa (genealogy), rangatiratanga (sovereignty) and many more.

One of the main conceptual differences between kaitiakitanga and conservation is that for kaitiakitanga, we consider it to be part of te taiao (the environment) and manage our relationships accordingly. Conservation is characterized by people managing the environment as if they were separate from it.

Read more: Why we need to release New Zealand’s choked rivers to reduce the impact of future flooding

The Honorable Justice Joe Williams describes kaitiakitanga as “the obligation to take care of oneself”, indicating the intrinsic bond between man and environment.

We warn against simplistic definitions of kaitiakitanga. They often separate it from its cultural context. Simplistic definitions diminish the richness of the concept and also fail to recognize the differences in how kaitiakitanga is conceptualized and practiced.

Instead, we encourage Western-trained researchers to gain a deeper understanding of concepts underlying kaitiakitanga and to work with mana whenua to further develop understanding.

Read more: In rehoming wildlife, Indigenous leadership produces the best results

Kaitiakitanga and conservation in practice

There are more and more examples of successful collaborations between mana whenua and researchers. By exploring these projects, researchers can gain insight into how they can contribute in an effective and respectful way.

For example, a study of traditional harvesting and management of sooty shearwaters in the Marlborough Sounds demonstrates the importance of incorporating cultural harvesting into species conservation management.

Likewise, focus on indigenous knowledge of the movement of rare species improves conservation outcomes.

Rāhui to combat cowry die-off: Biosecurity workers inspect and record information on a cowry in the Waitakere Ranges.
Getty Images

Rahui in custody

Rahui is a common process that can be used by mana whenua to restrict access to a particular resource or area of ​​land to allow recovery. It includes a holistic understanding of the environmental problem and social and political control.

Rāhui is used to it reduce the spread of Kauri disease in the Waitakere ranges. It’s used to that too Protect kaimoana (including scallops, mussels, crayfish and pāua) on Waiheke Island.

Other examples include rāhui covering forests, lakes, beaches and sea areas for a period of days to decades. Rāhui is widely used but very specific to local conditions. In order for iwi to implement rāhui, they must have rangatiratangaas kaitiakitanga is both an affirmation and a manifestation of rangatiratanga.

Read more: Let’s choose our words more carefully when we talk about mātauranga Māori and science

An effective way forward

Empowering Māori researchers and communities is at the heart of valuable collaborations. We encourage non-Māori researchers to approach collaboration with an awareness of the limits of their training and knowledge.

Embracing a mindset of intellectual humility is likely to create more conditions for meaningful co-created work. While establishing and maintaining partnerships can be time-consuming, our collective experience is that taking the time to develop trust and understanding is essential for successful outcomes.

We hope that our work will provide some inspiration and guidance for established practitioners and students alike.

There are a number of other examples of how mātauranga and ecology can work together. The New Zealand Journal of Marine and Freshwater Research has a special edition to mātauranga Māori and how this is shaping marine conservation. Others have explored how respectful collaborations can support better science education and better research results.

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