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Impacts of climate change for Māori

Climate change has the potential to radically threaten the cultural, environmental, economic and social wellbeing of Māori.

Adapting to the effects of climate change is a more complex matter for Māori, for many reasons. The complex legacy of colonisation, their intrinsic bond with te taiao (the natural world) and role as kaitiaki, cultural values and economic vulnerabilities all influence their capacity to deal with climate threats.

Working with Māori as partners to understand, and act on, climate change is essential – as is enabling flexible, Māori-led responses. The close social ties and cultural networks of Māori communities will help them improve resilience and develop adaptation responses that reflect their worldview.

Te ao Māori view of climate change

Māori see the world in a very different light to Pākehā. Climate impacts are felt on the atua (spiritual) level.

Te ao Māori (the Māori worldview) is underpinned by interconnectedness to the natural world through whakapapa to Ranginui (Sky Father) and Papatuanuku (Earth Mother). They retain a multi-generational perspective, based on the responsibility to their tupuna (ancestors) and generations yet to be born.

For many Māori, climate change is not an isolated risk. It’s intrinsically linked to other issues, such as social development needs, housing, environmental degradation, access to public services, and poverty.

Māori perspectives are also defined by relationships. In terms of working with councils on addressing the consequences of climate change, they are underpinned by legacy issues relating to colonisation, loss of land and the sometimes fractured relationships with the Crown and councils. (Some hapū in Northland do not recognise the authority of the Crown or councils.)

Impacts on Māori in Te Taitokerau

 

People

  • Historically, many hapū were forced out of traditional lands to occupy sub-optimal areas, such as river or coastal floodplains. This means flooding, coastal erosion, storm surges and regular tidal inundation are more likely to affect Māori communities.
  • Rural Māori are often not connected to secure and safe drinking water supplies, so are more susceptible to the effects of drought.
  • In some cases, the consequences of planning rules may affect the ability of hapū to implement their own adaptation actions, such as relocating communities or building water storage on land with restricted zoning provisions.
  • An increase in mosquito-borne pathogens such as dengue fever and Ross River fever could be a less-visible health impact.
Woman in floodwater at marae.

Flooding at Otiria Marae, 2020.


Economic

  • Many Māori communities aren’t serviced by reticulated water or sewage systems. The cost of repairing and maintaining these systems can increase health risks.
  • Some whānau Māori, especially those in more isolated areas, experience significant differences in incomes. This can reduce their capacity to afford the costs of protecting against, avoiding, and recovering from natural hazards and extreme weather events.
  • Māori are largely employed in primary industries, which are vulnerable to likely weather extremes such as extended droughts, flooding, salt water in water tables, and tidal inundation. This may directly impact whānau incomes.
  • Agricultural productivity may change, and access to settlements may become disrupted if roads are at risk of regular inundation due to sea level rise.
  • Unless emissions reduction policies are developed in true consultation with tangata whenua, and reflect mātauranga Māori, those policies have the potential to disproportionately affect Māori.
Flooding through Moerewa township.

Flooding through Moerewa township.


Whenua and ecosystems

  • Native flora and fauna will come under threat as the environment alters: their habitats will change, putting them at risk from exotic and invasive species.
  • Other expected impacts include changes in biodiversity, ecosystem function, waterways and coastal systems.
  • The inseparable links between Māori and te taiao mean all these changes will have cultural and personal effects for Māori.
  • The effects of climate change on ecosystems have direct implications for iwi/hapū spiritual connection to taonga and whakapapa, as well as practical issues such as food security.
  • Climate change may result in Māori being unable to enjoy the customary use of their whenua.
Dry lake bed

Lake Owhareti in drought.


Culture

  • Many hapū have strong cultural and historic affiliations with coastal areas that will be affected by climate change, through sea level rise.
  • Climate change is likely to threaten the cultural taonga that hapū whakapapa to, as they are frequently located by coasts, and rivers at risk of flooding. This includes cultural infrastructure such as marae and urupā, and places of cultural significance such as wāhi tapu and archaeological sites.
  • In some places, other traditional uses of the land (such as gathering food) will come under increased pressure. Maara kai (planting seasons) are constantly shifting because of climate change.
Shellfish in flax basket.

Gathering shellfish, Bay of Islands.


According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, indigenous peoples make up less than 5% of the world's population, but they safeguard as much as 80% of the world’s remaining forest biodiversity.

Using a te ao Māori perspective to describe climate risk can bring a holistic, culturally grounded approach to understanding the impacts of climate change. This is more appropriate for Māori communities, and brings a diverse range of skills and knowledge that will benefit all Northlanders.

This perspective acknowledges the need to consider legacy issues such as colonisation, and other socio-economic matters, when understanding and planning for climate risks with Māori communities. It can also make the implications of climate change less abstract, so the problems and issues become more meaningful for all communities. To be truly equitable in the way we adapt to our changing climate, we must incorporate the Māori worldview into our mahi.

At the heart of te ao Māori is the responsibility to be kaitiaki (guardians) of the environment. Though Māori are more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, they also hold knowledge that can help us all adapt to te ao hurihuri, the ever-changing world.