"Māori knowledge can help New Zealand get rid of predators but it can't be 'whitewashed'", Tame Malcolm
This article appeared in The Guardian newspaper on Sunday 24 January 2021 **OPINION PIECE ** Click here to read to the original article.
When I was taught how to trap possums, I was encouraged to combine the traditional knowledge of my Māori ancestors with modern technologies. An example of this is when the kawakawa plant bears fruit – the best lure to use is cinnamon. This is because the scents complement each other in the forest, to which the possums become attracted.
I assumed this was also the case when taught to use curry powder as a lure for when the hangehange flowers blossom. Instead, it was because wasps were very active at the time and I learned curry powder is one of the few lures to which wasps are not attracted; and no one wants to fiddle with traps covered in wasps!
Indeed no one likes pests, because they are trouble, threatening our natural habitats and wildlife. New Zealand has a highly ambitious goal to rid our lands of three unwanted pest predator species by 2050: possums, rats and stoats. Dubbed “Predator Free 2050”, this initiative will require almost every person doing their bit, not to mention a large amount of resourcing to fund it. While standard tools, technologies and procedures are being explored, such as trapping, toxins and even gene editing, there is a growing appetite for the inclusion of Māori knowledge to help achieve this lofty goal.
So, what is Māori knowledge? Well, Māori are the indigenous peoples of New Zealand. Therefore, Māori, or indigenous, knowledge is considered the traditional knowledge systems that derive from the original people of the land. I like to think of it as the value-systems and intelligence my Māori ancestors would have used to find a solution to problems. You see, the problems they faced hundreds of years ago are very different to the ones we face today. But I believe the way they discovered solutions then can provide us with innovative methods to tackle our more modern, complex problems.
Having grown up under the Māori tradition, I have experienced first-hand the benefits of adopting customary Māori approaches to ecological issues. When it comes to hunting and fishing, for example, Māori use ecological cues and signs to guide them; information which has been verbally passed down through generations. And it is this information that is the key, as it was borne of necessity. My ancestors needed a systematic approach to solving ecological problems to ensure their survival and I cannot think of a better impetus for success.
And I am not alone in calling for the use of Māori knowledge to get rid of predators. New Zealand government agencies and institutes charged with developing strategies and research to achieve this goal have also invested more funding to further investigate this space. One question being asked now is: can the current tools available – traps and toxins – be enhanced with Māori knowledge to increase efficiencies, i.e. catch more predators? Unfortunately, the answer is not a simple one, and nor is the dilemma I face in my work as an environmental advocate.
You see, I am all for the inclusion of Māori knowledge to achieve the Predator Free 2050 goal because, as mentioned, I see the benefits. However, my greatest fear is that this knowledge, considered sacred to Māori, as well as holding great cultural significance, will be “whitewashed”. History has shown us here in New Zealand that our government tends to take what it needs from Māori culture and discard the rest. Moreover, non-Māori have appropriated our knowledge and culture for their own gains but are nowhere to be seen when it comes to protecting them.
Understandably then, my position on the inclusion of Māori knowledge for Predator Free 2050 is that Māori people should be chosen to govern, manage and implement its use. Not only will this ensure that our knowledge is treated with respect, but it will ensure it is used appropriately.
I want to finish by sharing some insights into what Māori knowledge can offer Predator Free 2050. I know of traditional weaving practitioners who can go out into the forest with nothing but a knife and construct a fully functional and reusable trap that rival those on the market. Making use of this knowledge would see substantial cost savings for pest control operations and greater sustainability in the use of natural materials with minimal carbon footprint.
I also know of a tribe who use a combination of male human urine and other naturally occurring chemicals to keep predators away – I am unsure how effective it is but perhaps in time I might get to test that one out.