HE KĀKANO WĀNANGA
SEED CONSERVATION: OUR PASSION AND HOW YOU CAN BE PART OF IT!
Seeds are vital for our survival, they provide half the calories consumed by humanity today, they helped humans to evolve and ‘civilisation’ to develop.
Although indigenous people, farmers, gardeners, and horticulturalists the world over have long collected seeds for their own uses, increasing environmental concerns have driven the rise of more organised seed-storing initiatives. The phenomenon of seed banking, which has emerged largely since the 1980s and developed rapidly around the world, is estimated by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations, to comprise around 1,750 individual gene banks worldwide (holding seeds, along with bulbs and tubers).
Scientists have largely agreed that selective breeding by farmers throughout the centuries has gradually reduced the genetic diversity contained within crop seeds, making wild crop relatives a vital and valuable source of genetic diversity. Additionally it is largely agreed that wild plants are also under threat, from logging, urbanisation, and climate change. This threat gave rise to the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in 1992, also known as the Rio Earth Summit, and is reflected in the Convention on Biological Diversity, Article 9 which states contracting parties should: “take action where necessary for the conservation of biological diversity through the in situ conservation of ecosystems and natural habitats, as well as primitive cultivars and their wild relatives, and the maintenance and recovery of viable populations of species in their natural surroundings, and implement ex situ measures, preferably in the source country.”
The call for ‘ex situ measures’ has been the catalyst for existing seed-banking initiatives to be strengthened and new operations to be set up. In 2008, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault opened on a remote Arctic island. This ‘doomsday vault’ acts as a backup for all agricultural seed collections around the world. It has the capacity to store 2.5 billion seeds at -18⁰C and holds seeds from Aotearoa New Zealand (approximately 1.6 million NZ seeds from 122 taxa (Nordgen, 2010)). The need for such backup has already been demonstrated. In 1996, a flood following a typhoon in the Philippines left its national collection of crop seeds under water; two years later, Hurricane Mitch destroyed Hondura’s seed bank. In 2002, two stores holding seeds from Afghanistan’s native crops were destroyed by thieves wanting the plastic containers, and conflicts in Rwanda, Burundi, Iraqi and the Solomon Islands have also lead to the destruction of valuable seed stores.
Here in Aotearoa New Zealand we are in the midst of a biosecurity crisis that has seen seed collection and storage of Myrtaceae species intensified. The 2017 government-led response to the incursion of Myrtle Rust (austropuccinia psidii), a devastating plant pathogen with a host preference for culturally important plant species in the myrtle family, led to a government funded seed collection programme authorised under the Biosecurity Act. This programme was/is being led by DOC and is seen as an insurance policy of sorts. However in stating “while MPI and DOC are dealing with the initial outbreak, we need to plan to secure the long-term future of some taonga species by seed banking” (Department of Conservation, 2017), DOC admits the significance of this problem for all New Zealanders but also concedes particular relevance to Māori.
Unfortunately, despite numerous calls by Māori for engagement to ensure free, informed, and prior consent around the collection of these taonga seeds, there is little evidence that agencies involved have sought to engage in any meaningful way with the local Māori communities affected by myrtle rust. We are not saying that DOC, MPI, Crown Research Institutes (CRIs) or the New Zealand Indigenous Flora and Fauna Seed Bank (NZIFS) have not engaged with Māori communities, rather that it hasn’t been done in a meaningful way that is open, transparent and in alignment with Treaty of Waitangi responsibilities, or obligations under the Mataatua Declaration on Cultural and Intellectual Property Rights of Indigenous Peoples, or the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
In August 2017, 15 kaitiaki from across the country gathered in Auckland to discuss seed conservation with NZIFSB representatives. Those discussions did not go well. In December 2017, 23 kaitiaki were trained in seed conservation techniques by the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership, Kew UK, the Australian Seed Bank Partnership, and Te Tira Whakamātaki (TTW), and over 2017-2019 TTW purchased and distributed nine seed drum kits valued at around $5,000 each. These events were in direct response to requests from whānau and hapū, via regional hui, to ensure Māori, Treaty and Wai 262 rights were being met in the collection, storage, and use of plant materials specifically seeds.
Over the years our whānau, you, have suggested that TTW and Māori katoa do several things to ensure the safety of our taonga seeds and plant materials:
- Develop culturally appropriate protocols/policies for the future collection, storage, and use of seed and plant materials.
- Develop protocols/policies for the management of seed and plant materials currently in collections.
- Develop a Māori Seed Conservation Strategy for the future.
- Provide seed conservation techniques training and seed drum kits for every hapū.
Last year TTW secured funding to work on seed conservation specifically as it relates to kauri dieback and myrtle rust. This year we will be running seed conservation conversations around the country to discuss all of the points above and more. We specifically want to understand what seed conservation capability and infrastructure Māori have and or want, to develop protocols for seed conservation especially as it relates to kauri dieback and myrtle rust, and develop a seed conservation strategy for all of Aotearoa New Zealand that reflects the rights of Māori and our taonga.