Kaitiakitanga | Environment

Ko te whenua te waiu mo nga uri whakatipu

(The land will provide sustenance for future generations)

Ngati Porou are a product of our unique environment. Our cultural values, our identity and even our language has been shaped by our environment over many generations. Colonisation has placed great pressure on this, transforming and destroying our land, sea and natural life and continues to provide many challenges to our existence. Our role as kaitiaki requires us to protect and nurture our environment and it will in turn protect and nurture us. Every whanau and hapu has their own perspective of our environment: the following is one telling of the story…

Ngati Porou Kaitiakitanga | The Destruction of the Environment
Ongoing Environmental Challenges | Reasserting Kaitiakitanga

Ngati Porou Kaitiakitanga

Our identity is our environment

Our identity is tied to our whenua and to our environment. We have many expressions that assert this connection.

Ko Hikurangi te Maunga

Ko Waiapu te Awa.

Ko Ngati Porou te iwi.

This pepeha (identifying phrase) makes a statement that our identity as a people is tied to the maunga and the awa.

Our tipuna Paikea is another expression of this identity. By transforming himself into a tohora (whale) he established for us a connection between ourselves and nature. We also understand that land and water have mauri, or a life essence. We also understand that plants and animals have a whakapapa that we connect to. For example whales are now part of our identity as an iwi, and we whakapapa to them through Paikea.

We do not just share a relationship with our environment: our identity, our knowledge and our world view is built on it. Matauranga-a-iwi (our tribal knowledge system) is built on our environment. Our unique reo, for example, is a product of our unique environment.

Western identity is built around human characteristics. Our Ngati Porou identity is also built around things that came before us - mountains, rivers, plants, animals, and so on. Our culture seeks to reflect our surroundings, not to dominate it. We do not claim ‘ownership’ of land but rather our right is based on mana, through our ties to the whenua. We are the tangata whenua: the people of the land.


Our role as kaitiaki (guardians) is to have guardianship of and to care for the mana, the tapu, and the mauri of our environment – of plants and animals, of water and land. We have examples from our korero tuku iho (oral traditions) that inform us in our role as kaitiaki.

The Te Whanau-a-Hinerupe kaumātua Pine Taiapa once shared the story of the coming of the kumara to Aotearoa from Hawaiki. Ruakapunga, the high priest of the cult of the kumara, sent one of his people, Tairangahue, to Aotearoa to assess its suitability as a site for kumara cultivation. After Tairangahue saw the flowering kowhai and abundant birdlife in the area of Gisborne, he returned to Hawaiki to tell Ruakapunga how good the land there was for cultivation. When he travelled back to Aotearoa once again, he did so on giant birds the high priest had provided for him. But he overlooked the need to recite vital incantations of thanksgiving and to ensure the safe return of the birds once he reached his destination. Tairangahue eventually uttered the appropriate karakia, but it was too late, and the birds arrived home in very poor condition. To avenge the maltreatment of his birds, Ruakapunga sent three pests to affect the growth of the kumara, the anuhe, a grub, and mokowhiti and the mokoroa. All these pests led to failure of the kūmara crop, and are a reminder, Taiapa said, ‘of Ruakapunga’s vengeance on man’ for his thoughtlessness. As kaitiaki we have a sacred role to play, and if we do not we will suffer the consequences.

We have many rituals associated with our role as kaitiaki. Planting, harvesting, storing all are part of or role as guardians of the mana, the tapu, and the mauri of our environment. Rahui (prohibitions) for example can be a way of protecting the whenua and the moana.

In return we believe that our environment can protect us. Many whanau and hapu have animals who are kaitikai over them. Some may have a ruru or a mango or another expression of mauri that guards their wellbeing. Our role as kaitiaki is never ending, and goes to the heart of our identity.

Our connection as kaitiaki is eternal. We have no other land or sea. Our wellbeing and identity as a people is entirely dependent on the wellbeing of our environment.

The Ngati Porou environment

Great rimu forests like this one covered the land

In pre-contact times the Ngati Porou rohe looked significantly different to how it does today. Human impact on the whenua was minimal, apart from the occasional burn off. Most of our impact was along small parts of the coast as well as some clearings for kumara plantings in valleys. In 1840 around 80-90% of our rohe was under natural forest. In the hills heading towards the Raukumara ranges there were large forests of rimu, totara, matai and kahikatea.

The Waiapu Valley around this time looked completely different to today. Most of the valley around the river was covered in manuka, kanuka and tawhai, with some clearings for kumara cultivation around Rangitukia and Whakawhitira. The Waiapu River itself was alive with native fish species, including tuna (eels) and inanga (whitebait) and the tributary rivers provided an abundance of kai moana for the people. Plant life provided life-giving qualities in other ways. Manuka alone could provide everything from materials to build taruke (crayfish pots), through to the framework for tukutuku panels, and even Rongoa (medicine). We lived in harmony with our environment, as kaitiaki.

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The destruction of the environment

The arrival of Pakeha economic systems in the second half of the nineteenth century soon placed pressure on the whenua. To take advantage of the new economy we quickly began to reshape the environment ourselves. Land was cleared to grow flax in large quantities as well as wheat, onions, potatoes and other kai for sale to new Pakeha markets.

However the pressure to alienate land proved to be a driver for environmental destruction. The Native Land Court and other devices to part us from our lands, initially resisted by Ngati Porou leadership soon proved irresistible. We were forced to surrender high country lands which were quickly stripped of their forest and turned into pasture for sheep farming.

In the 1890s the Liberal government increased the pressure through the Advances to Settlers Act, This act provided cheap loans, tax breaks, guaranteed prices and other support to Pakeha farmers (specifically excluding Maori) who then began to farm our lands. Land clearance was supported by government funds and the farmers in return voted for the Liberals, so the whole political and economic system began to place great pressure on the whenua.

The greatest damage to our environment was done between 1890 and 1920. In that time huge land clearances and burn offs were conducted and the mighty forests were converted into sheep farms for meat export to Britain. By 1908 not only had we lost over half of our land, but what was left was now prone to flooding and erosion.

This pressure would continue throughout the remainder of the twentieth century as successive governments in return for votes supported these farming practices. In the name of ‘progress’, ‘economic development’ and ‘productivity’ our land had been destroyed.

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Ongoing environmental challenges

A range of challenges remain before us in our role as kaitiaki. From pests threatening the extinction of our indigenous plants and animals through to Japanese whaling, our role never ends.

The environment and poverty

Through the processes of ‘economic development’, in a matter of decades our whenua was transformed and made vulnerable to flooding and erosion. To make matters worse we did not receive a enough economic benefit from the situation. We remained relatively poor, and were often excluded from government support. We felt the impact of the direct link between environmental destruction and poverty.

The impact of erosion and flooding was felt as early as the 1930s. A huge storm in 1938 caused extensive damage right across the rohe. In Tokomaru Bay bridges were washed away and huge boulders scattered at the school. At Waiomatatini Ta Apirana Ngata’s Bungalow was flooded and the marae dining hall was undermined and collapsed. At Rangitukia buildings were swept into the river.

Whanau at the time were left in a desperate plight. Although the development schemes had helped alleviate some poverty, Maori whanau were still suffering badly from the economic depression. Some whanau at Rangitukia for example had lost their whole crop of kumara in the floods and had little to eat and the community as a whole had little to spare.

By the 1930s schemes for the unemployed had already begun to factor in erosion control. Tree planting to hold land together became one of the normal costs of development work and the costs of these plantings were spread out among the whole valley, especially those further downstream. This also became part of the subsidised work schemes as recognition of the long-term need for conservation. A 1939 aerial survey of the flats between Rangitukia and the river showed the extent of 'serious erosion', and also the speed at which the erosion was working. One field selected by Native Affairs supervisors for inclusion in the development schemes was soon found washed away. The department noted that erosion was damaging hundreds of acres 'of the best land we have under development'. Some of the work involved up to thirty men working for two months repairing flood damage, at a cost of £200 (around $20,000 in today’s money).

The impact of Cyclone Bola in 1988 was hugely destructive. But the impact was much worse because it hit a people who were suffering financially after being devastated by the economic changes of the time. High unemployment and a struggling local economy meant that when the environmental storm hit, it met a perfect social and economic storm and the impact was simply devastating.

Learn more about Cyclone Bola...


The Waiapu river in 1951 where erosion was already beginning to set in

The land clearances of the turn of the century, followed by decades of unsustainable land use practices meant the whenua was wide open for the impact of erosion. This was on top of the weak rock sub-structure beneath the soil making the Waiapu Valley the most erosion prone land in the country. This meant that weather events such as the 1938 storm and Cyclone Bola in 1988 were particularly devastating for the rohe.

The clearances also meant that erosion has had a particularly large impact on the Waiapu River. Today the Waiapu River has one of the biggest outputs of sediment of any river in the world at around 35 million tonnes a year. By comparison the combined sediment outflow of two of New Zealand's largest rivers - the Clutha and the Waikato - is roughly one million tonnes per year from much bigger rivers. Not only are we literally losing our whenua, but that earth is silting up the moana affecting fishing and other activities.

Climate change

The biggest long-term threat to our environment is global warming caused by human-made emissions of carbon dioxide. The negative impact of climate change on the world’s economy will have the most impact on our people because we are the poorest in this country. Erosion will continue to worsen, affecting our whenua and our ability to farm sustainably. The impact of storms like those of 1938 and 1988 will worsen and the super-storm cycle will speed up in frequency.

Ngāti Porou have been leading the way among iwi attempting to combat this. Dr Apirana Mahuika is the chair of the Climate Change forum for the Iwi Leadership Group, and has led the way in advocating for more urgent solutions to be found by government and the private sector. Ngāti Porou recognise that our reliance on primary industries could be heavily affected by climate change, as well as our relative poverty making us more vulnerable. We also recognise that our duty as kaitiaki and as Nga Uri a Rangi raua ko Papa (descendants of Ranginui and Papatuanuku) mean we have no choice but to strive to combat this situation.

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Reasserting Kaitiakitanga

In recent decades as Ngati Porou have found ways to reassert our rangatiratanga we have also been able to reassert our role as kaitiaki, based on our own matauranga.

As part of our negotiation of our Treaty Settlement in 2010 we were able to claim ‘dual authority’ with the Crown over conservation (DOC) land within our rohe. Through this we are able to assert our environmental priorities, and no longer would our whenua be subject to the whim of others. Similarly the Marine and Coastal Area (Takutai Moana) Act 2011 has allowed us to have a say on the use of our moana. Ngati Porou experts also had a significant input into the Wai 262 claim before the Waitangi Tribunal looking at Kaitiakitanga and intellectual property rights. Claims like this will be increasingly important as biotechnology makes claims on our environment and matauranga in the future.

Learn more about the Ngati Porou fight against deep-water drilling...

Probably the most significant result of our negotiation with the Crown though has been the Waiapu River restoration accord, signed in 2014. In an unprecedented development the Crown along with the Gisborne District Council has agreed to a one hundred year commitment to restore the river . Such a huge commitment, with our input as kaitiaki, is the only way to restore the river to its life-giving state.