Twilight of an ancient knowledge

For centuries, New Zealand's Maoris have used intimate observation of nature to harvest eels and predict the weather. That marvelous legacy is endangered by climate change.


Durrell Dawson
May 5, 2006 3:00PM (UTC)

When the first Maori came to the Pacific shores of New Zealand from East Polynesia roughly a thousand years ago, they found a temperate climate and pristine coastlines that stretched for miles. Their idyllic new home had no other humans and no natural predators. Over time, even after settlers arrived from Europe, Maori lived in New Zealand as tangata whenua, or people of the land, and built a detailed base of knowledge that incorporated the wind, the stars and the attributes of plants and animals.

But today, New Zealand is no longer the same land. National icons like the kiwi bird have declined in population, pollution levels have increased and residents report subtler changes: Wind blows much more strongly from the southwest than it used to, some plants bloom at earlier times of the year and the weather is increasingly unpredictable.

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On a remote hill about an hour northwest of the metropolis of Auckland, climate scientist Darren King grasps the branch of a pohutakawa tree, which towers over him and the rolling green hills that serve as a barrier to the volcanic, black sand-lined Piha beach. Pohutukawa trees across the two-island nation are typically ablaze with red, festive-looking blooms during the summer months of December and January, earning them the nickname of the New Zealand Christmas tree. But King stands in a sea of green trees and shrubbery, none brightened by fire-red blossoms.

"It is odd that these trees are not as bright and covered in flowers as they would normally be -- so who knows, maybe the trees know something we don't know," he says with a smile.

King, a scientist of Maori descent, works as a paleoclimatologist for New Zealand's premier climate research agency, the National Institute for Water and Atmospheric Research, and is trying to make sense of these changes. Most of his research depends on the hard data of his country's climate records; for instance, he refers to isotopes found in caves as part of his effort to reconstruct past climate and temperature records for parts of New Zealand. But for the past three years, through a joint project with two Maori iwi and NIWA's Maori Research Unit, Te Kuwaha, King has been working to document Maori knowledge of local weather and climate. The project is a far cry from King's world of figures and measurements, but he believes Maori knowledge can contribute to scientific understanding of the local climate and atmosphere.

"Those local observations can provide us with quite an important baseline for comparing what we see now," King says. He has reviewed oral histories and songs and found historically accurate references to major environmental events, including a devastating landslide in 1846 that swept away the village of Te Rapa and its Maori chief Te Heuheu.

According to traditional Maori beliefs, the environment is rife with clues that hint at larger phenomena. Everything is interconnected in the Maori view of the world, from the cries of birds to the shapes and colors of clouds. The tribes, or iwi, use these clues in deciding when to plant, harvest and fish.

The pohutukawa tree and its bright-red flowers are used by many northwestern iwi as predictors of a long summer marked by drought. Traditionally, Maori refer to several such indicators and make weather predictions, using what King dubs "consensus-based forecasting." This type of forecasting has been used worldwide by indigenous cultures that rely on nature for their livelihoods, from the Arctic and Samoa to Peru and Zimbabwe.

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These systems have been developed over centuries, relying on a sort of trial and error, and King says that if their indicators didn't work, the Maori wouldn't have continued to use them. But now that New Zealand's weather patterns are changing, many of the elders King has spoken with say the indicators are less dependable.

The Ngati Pare iwi once relied on the native brown parrot, or kaka, to predict stormy weather, but now that the birds are rarely seen in the North Island's forests, they find it harder to make their forecasts. Eels, one of the largest components of the traditional Maori diet, begin their migration cycles at increasingly idiosyncratic times, making it difficult for locals to catch them. An iwi on New Zealand's eastern coast is known for its crab-catching abilities, but the main harbor where they fish has become choked with the sudden spread of mangroves, possibly because of warmer temperatures. And in some areas the cabbage tree, which Maori tribes sometimes use to forecast a dry summer, is flowering much later in the season than normal. King believes local changes like these may reflect larger-scale climatic changes taking place in the region and around the world.

"Environmental changes in association with increasing variability in local weather and climate are making interpretation of environmental indicators more difficult," he told me in an e-mail. "From the unusual flowering times of local flora to the changing arrival times of migratory birds, to the increasing changeability of local winds, these altered patterns are throwing into question the reliability of age-old understanding."

Human impacts like deforestation and agriculture could explain some quirks in the local environment, like the diminishing number of kaka birds. But some changes may be the result of larger climate trends.

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The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change -- the world's foremost authority on the effects of global warming -- has seen global temperatures rise over the past century as a result of increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. As the temperature rises, the IPCC says, it sets off a chain reaction of environmental changes, resulting in more rainfall in some places, more evaporation and arid conditions in others, and contrasting air temperatures and pressures globally, leading to shifting wind patterns.

These climate changes affect local biodiversity. And the IPCC warns that the world's traditional and indigenous communities are among the most vulnerable to shifts in the environment. In many areas, climate change is already taking its toll.

In Ecuador, mountain communities are becoming parched as their glaciers vanish. On the opposite end of the spectrum, communities in Bangladesh and the South Pacific island nation of Kiribati face inundation from rising sea levels. Malaria is reaching parts of east Africa for the first time as mosquitoes find their way to warming locales. For cultures like the Maori in New Zealand, it's little developments like these that have the potential to wreak havoc.

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In the coastal town of Otaki, the Maori people are already struggling to reconcile their knowledge and culture with the signs of climate change.

Georgina Kiripuwai Te Aomarere shares her cultural knowledge at local Maori college Te Wananga-o-Raukawa, where she serves as a kaiawhina, or supporter. At 89, she is the oldest member of her iwi and one of the oldest people in town.

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Te Aomarere remembers that on a November day in the early 1920s, her mother predicted there would be a late-spring frost the following morning, which would ruin her recently planted garden. Her mother took action, lighting fires around the garden and letting the smoke blanket her crops. Sure enough, when morning arrived, there was a light frost on the ground. The garden of potatoes, peas and beans were spared because of the heat from the fires, and were used to feed the family at Christmas.

"They had to know all these things because, it's not like now where you have a weather report, weather forecast on TV and what it's going to do tomorrow and the next day and the next day," says Te Aomarere, as she reclines in the living room of her mother's house. "So they were able to tell by different things in the atmosphere and watching the sky what was going to happen."

Her mother, she says, knew when the wind would blow from the south, and would predict rain when she saw clouds hanging over a nearby island. Today Te Aomarere is known as "Auntie Kiripuwai." In her work as a kaiwhina, she shares some of her knowledge of Maori culture, but she readily admits she knows little about the Maori system of environmental indicators. With colonization came the assimilation and gradual dissipation of traditional Maori culture, and the dilution of the cultural inheritance for Maori of Te Aomarere's generation and the generations that followed.

In 1840, British representatives signed the Treaty of Waitangi, the first in a series of legal documents that make up New Zealand's constitution. It functioned as an agreement between the British crown and several Maori tribes, establishing New Zealand as a colony and guaranteeing Maori self-governance of their land. But subsequent legislation threatened Maori autonomy and culture.

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The Settlements Act of 1863 allowed large chunks of Maori land to be legally confiscated as punishment for rebellion. The Native Schools Act of 1867 essentially forbade government funding for schools that taught in the Maori language, and the number of people speaking Maori dwindled. By 1896, there were only 42,000 Maori in New Zealand, and it would have been reasonable to expect the Maori race to assimilate into European culture. The Tohunga Suppression Act of 1907 encouraged this trend by penalizing practitioners of traditional Maori medicine and spirituality.

In 1947, a monument was erected at Auckland's historic One Tree Hill as a memorial to what was believed to be a dying Maori race.

But over the last 20 years, there has been a Maori cultural resurgence in New Zealand, as well as an active effort to incorporate Maori heritage into government, academia and mainstream society. Still, some Maori feel this renaissance may be too late to save certain traditional practices.

"We have two generations of people who don't know how to survive out in the open like this," says Maori farmer Rangi Raroa, overlooking the tourist farmstay he runs on New Zealand's eastern cape as sheep bleat in the background.

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He worries about the ramifications of climate change and says the area's rainfall has gotten heavier and more localized. But he's also concerned about the dwindling number of people who observe the traditional Maori value of environmental conservation.

"Unfortunately, that's changed because we've been molded into the Western way of living, which is produce as much as you can off your bit of dirt so you can buy a flash car, and live how Westerners perceive you should live."

As Maori culture becomes assimilated into the larger New Zealand society, the once-pervasive tribal beliefs about nature die off as some elders take them to their graves. And the remaining system of environmental information and practices is growing obsolete as the climate changes.

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"For a people who've essentially lived seasonally, everything's been knocked out of kilter," says Awanui Black, a Maori dictionary writer who hopes to preserve his culture. A breeze blows through his coastal town of Otaki, population 5,600, and cars pull in and out of the parking lot of a local grocery store. Black sits across the street in the shade of his marae -- the area where Maori traditionally meet.

In Maori culture there are few areas as important as the marae, which is often marked by a looming, bright-red house and a spacious front yard. Tourists to New Zealand appreciate the distinctly carved figures that adorn the marae and place them at the top of their list of things to see. It is here that Maori people come for their most important events: weddings, funerals and tribal ceremonies.

But on this sunny January day, Black, who teaches at Te Wananga-o-Raukawa, is here for a different reason: to talk to me about how the food now ripens at different times, how the water is warmer, and how the seasons seem to blur.

"We are going to have to start creating new knowledge and new ways of interacting with [the environment] so that the integrity of our culture is maintained," Black says. His voice takes on a sense of urgency when he speaks of climate change.

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"What sort of an effect does that have on the natural world and the natural environment?" he says. "Therefore what kind of effect does that have on us? The health of our people is directly linked to the health of the ecosystem."

In Maori cosmology, all of nature -- the sky, the forest, the seas -- is part of the Maori ancestry, and many cultural reference points like names, places and events are based on the environment.

But the environment is more than just a reference point, Black says. It's the essence of Maori culture. As such, any change to the environment can alter the next generation's very knowledge about itself.

"When you're detached from your environment -- one that your ancestors cherished and looked after and handed down to the generations following it -- once that connection has been broken, there is a lot of lost ground to be made up," he says.

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Pakeha, or non-Maori, who visit New Zealand are unlikely to notice environmental changes. But many locals notice. In Otaki, where Black lives, the eels -- among the most important environmental resources to Maori -- have been acting strangely.

Called tuna by Maori, the anguila australus, or long- and short-finned eel, serves as the key source of protein in the traditional Maori diet. Every February or March -- summer in the Southern Hemisphere -- the silvery-gray, snakelike fish leaves the rivers and streams of New Zealand to spawn in the Pacific Ocean around Tonga, an exodus timed according to changing water temperature and the rainfall that traditionally occurs before autumn. Many iwi once based their annual eel catching around just a few nights of the migration.

At migration time, Maori would set up their nets and wait for the nocturnal fish to swim their way. They would then store their stock of eels in boxes and then live off the fish, which can grow up to 4 feet in length, for several months. But in recent years, the eel migration to Tonga has been unpredictable for the people of Otaki.

"What we're finding is for these people to predict this, this event is getting harder and harder," says Pataka Moore, an environmental researcher, student and lecturer who uses Maori wisdom to monitor the health of Otaki's streams. He has interviewed his Maori elders and says they once were able to say exactly which night to expect the eel.

"They're now saying, 'I don't know. I'm not sure. It could be this week or maybe it's not. It may be next week perhaps, it might be two months' time.' They just don't know this. Things are so unpredictable these days. Seasons have really, yeah" he says, his last sentence trailing off.

Just before Christmas, Caleb Royal, also a lecturer in environmental management at Te Wananga-o-Raukawa, caught some eel that looked like they were heading out to sea two months early. The seasons have changed, he says, and it's making his job more difficult. If the weather and environment continue to veer from the patterns that were constant for so long, Maori may have to abandon this aspect of their heritage.

Records at the temperature station closest to Otaki, in the town of Levin, indicate an increase in annual temperature since 1895. But in 2004 the temperature was slightly lower than the long-term average. That same year, the Otaki area experienced its worst flooding in a century, with rainfall about 560 millimeters greater than the annual average. Since then, the area has been experiencing droughtlike conditions.

In parts of New Zealand, people joke about living in a climate that can produce all four seasons in a day; but to some people in Otaki, this variability is no laughing matter.

"These days you don't know when a drought is going to come and when a heavy cold, whether it's going to be a cold winter or a warmer winter," Moore says.

"I suppose it's some of those patterns, whether they're global or whether it's just affecting us down here in the South Pacific. But they're definitely having an effect on our resources and us."

"Genetically we're going to survive," Black tells me, as light drops of moisture fall from the clouds and the sky turns a foreboding gray. But, he says fervently, cultural survival is just as important.

"If we're to lose some of these key components of what makes us us, elements of our culture, then once that's lost, what do we become?" he asks. "We just become brown-skinned pakeha, or brown-skinned something or another else."


Read other articles in the Early Signs: Reports From a Warming Planet directory.


Durrell Dawson

Durrell Dawson is a freelance journalist. This story was reported in a joint production of Salon, NPR's Living on Earth and U.C. Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism.

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