Te Mana o te Wai, Te Mana o te Tangata

9 March 2022

How can western science and mātauranga Māori work together? Mapihi Martin-Paul, Kaiwhiri Te Hihiri / Strategic Advisor – Māori; and biosecurity consultant Jade Gibson say now is the time to challenge our thinking.

Te Mana o te Wai has been a part of the National Policy Statement Freshwater Management (NPS-FM) since 2014 and has recently been elevated to the forefront of our minds with the policy’s renewal in 2020. While Te Mana o te Wai has underpinned Aotearoa’s freshwater policy for nearly a decade, receiving much more attention in the last 18 months, the concept has been at the core of the Māori belief system since Ranginui and Papatūānuku separated to form our natural world.

Te Mana o te Wai is a concept that puts the cultural and ecological health of our waterbodies above all else. It prioritises the need to restore and protect the integrity of the water, the intrinsic values and health of freshwater systems, over and above enabling the consumption of water or utilization of water as an economic resource.

Te Mana o te Wai acknowledges that tangata whenua carry important mātauranga Māori (traditional knowledge) that is beneficial in the decision-making process when planning for freshwater. This mātauranga Māori is a unique body of knowledge that tangata whenua have built over generations, through a deep understanding of the environment. It stems from whakapapa (genealogy), down into the natural world. Over time, tangata whenua have developed tools to measure, protect, and improve the environment, whilst continuing to live sustainably amongst it. While mātauranga Māori is a taonga (treasure) to tangata whenua, it is a relatively new concept that has grown recently, particularly through the elevation of Te Mana o te Wai in the NPS-FM.

So, what role does this traditional knowledge have in helping us with understanding and rectifying the environmental crisis we are facing? Can the processes and practices that have been tried, tested and refined over hundreds of years grow our more contemporary knowledge, and ultimately enhance our freshwaters?

Many may argue that science is the optimal way to measure the health of an ecosystem, as it uses rigorous processes to collect quantitative data, resulting in objective outcomes. The role of traditional knowledge in today’s modern world is frequently called into question. But now is the time to challenge our thinking – can mātauranga Māori and science inform and strengthen each other and together can they lead us to better environmental outcomes?

To give effect to Te Mana o Te Wai, we must actively engage tangata whenua and apply mātauranga Māori to the management of freshwater. So, how do we do this?

Mātauranga Māori is generally not in the form of information written in books or searchable on the internet. It is learnt through the long-standing occupation of the land and learning intimately how it functions, so signs of abnormality can be seen and acted on. This knowledge is passed down orally through generations and is protected as a taonga. Given the oral nature with which this treasured knowledge has been shared and retained over the years, how do environmental practitioners – Māori and non-Māori – seek out this knowledge to guide us in implementing policies such as Te Mana o te Wai? It begins and ends with engagement.

‘Good engagement’ is ultimately about one thing – whakawhanaungatanga: a concept that recognises the relationship between Māori and the natural world. It can look like walking the awa (river) with a kaumatua (elder) describing how a now dry tributary used to run strong with spring water and be thick with watercress; or it can look like a cup of coffee in the lounge of a kaumatua who spent their childhood eeling in the lake but no longer can, as the water is now muddied and cloaked in weed. What both of these examples have in common is the inter-generational spanning of time and reference to degradation, affecting the ability of manawhenua to gather from the lands and waters that had sustained them all their lives. This deep understanding of how the landscape used to look, feel, smell and function allows us to plan for what success might look like in the future.

So, how do we get there? How can western science and mātauranga Māori work together?

The primary obligation of Te Mana o te Wai is to prioritise the health and wellbeing of the water before anything else. Freshwater scientists use tools to measure the health of a waterway. This health is determined by riparian and in-stream habitat conditions, water quality and the quantity of flora and fauna. But where in this science system do we give thought to the wellbeing of the water?

For Māori – an awa is a living entity with its own mauri (life force) and the wellbeing of the awa is imperative. Although mauri is believed to be intangible, tangata whenua have developed tools that use a holistic approach in examining a site and observing its cultural value. Cultural values can include the presence of taonga species, levels of modification, surrounding land use, and suitability for mahinga kai gathering. Just as modern scientists do, tangata whenua also make observations on water quality, such as flow, clarity, and levels of sediment.

The tools used in science and mātauranga Māori are similar in many ways. The synergies suggest that maybe scientific tools can give a representation of a waterbodies wellbeing and mātauranga Māori can indicate if the freshwater system is healthy. Together, these two knowledge systems encompass the primary obligation of Te Mana o te Wai.

But what if scientific values are different to cultural values? What if the science and mātauranga Māori don’t always align? For example, tangata whenua may see the presence of thick watercress as a positive because they can gather and eat it, whereas scientists may see it as a negative as it’s reducing waterflow. Does this difference even matter?

If an element of mātauranga Māori doesn’t fit within Western science, maybe we need to take a slight step back from science and push our minds to think in different ways. Mātauranga Māori can push us further than only thinking about science, it could challenge us to consider the holistic relationship between the waterbody, the land, our people, and the mauri that we share.

The values that underpin culture or science do not hold a hierarchy, one is not better than the other. Instead, concepts such as Te Mana o te Wai are pushing us to consider both. As environmental practitioners, this will challenge us to expand our minds and think in a more holistic way. Engaging tangata whenua as experts is critical in planning how to manage, protect, and enhance the wellbeing of our waters. Forming this connection between mauri, people and our natural world will have positive effects far beyond the individual components that modern science is currently observing.

Find out more

Finding ways to measure mauri: State of the Takiwā

For further information please contact Mapihi Martin-Paul or Dr. Tanya Blakely