Ko wai mātou—we are water

Dr Huhana Smith and cousins have spent the last twenty years focussing on the restoration of her ancestral coastal land and waterways at Kuku Beach, near Levin, in Aotearoa/New Zealand, using biochar—the carbon-rich remains of slow-burned wood. Smith and her collaborators use biochar not only as a tool for land restoration, but also as an artistic medium. Their work is critical for thinking about what is possible when Māori communities have control of their cultural and spiritual bases.

In the recent exhibition Te Au: Liquid Constituencies at the Govett Brewster Art gallery in Ngā Motu (New Plymouth), the art collective to which Smith belongs—Te Waituhi ā Nuku: Drawing Ecologies—presented their research utilising low tech and cost efficient solutions to overcome the ‘impacts of colonial, intensified agriculture’.

A gallery wall (Monique Jansen and Maija Stephens) was dedicated to their research on the use of biochar packed inside biodegradable coffee bags that can then filter water in streams. A series of plans, drawings and experiments depict their trials and errors of using biochar as a potentially sustainable resource. Here biochar is used as charcoal—as a drawing tool. Some of the objects utilise tukutuku panelling on the hemp weed mats.

In the context of Ngā Motu, bio char recalls the glittery black sand all along the West coast on which the city sits. A city with a dark colonial past, Ngā Motu is still grappling with the effects of environmental degradation due to a number of industries such as agriculture, the dredging of fifty million tons of sand over the last decade and the extraction of ‘black gold’ of oil and gas. The latter has been an ongoing battle for iwi seeking to prevent deep sea oil prospecting in South Taranaki.

The exhibition both explains and demonstrates how to use biochar, but also serves as a means of documenting the Kuku Biochar Project, a project designed in the restoration of Waikōkopu stream restoration at Kuku Beach, allowing the collective to draw out longer conversations around the environment and think through what solutions can look like. Part of Te Hākari Dune wetland, Waikōkopu stream is a one section of what was once an extensive coastal forest that encompassed a series of lakes, lagoons, and dune wetlands located within an ancestral area under the guardianship of hapū Ngāti Te Rangitāwhia, Te Mateawa and Ngāti Kapumanawhiti ki Kuku, who affiliate to Ngāti Tūkorehe, as well as being politically aligned to Ngāti Raukawa Ki Te Tonga.

The words ‘Te Hākari’ can be translated into English as the feast. Te Hākari wetlands, like many others that were once extensive across Aotearoa were rich with food that supported multiple lifeforms. These waterways were once all hydraulically and ecologically linked and much of this area remains under the ownership and kaitiakitanga—the exercise of guardianship—of Ngāti Tūkorehe. These lands are in native title, unlike much of the lands in the Taranaki region, where the largest of the tribal district confiscations happened of over 1,244,300 acres following the New Zealand wars in the 1860s and 1870s. Much of this land was taken utilising the New Zealand Settlements Act 1863, which enabled the raupatu (confiscation) of land from Māori who were deemed to have ‘engaged in open rebellion against Her Majesty’s authority’.

Works by Te Waituhi ā Nuku: Drawing Ecologies, Te Au: Liquid Constituencies, Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, 2022. Courtesy of the artists. Photo: Bryan James.

How did we get here?

Not unlike many other former settler colonies, Aotearoa is built primarily on reclaimed land and agriculture is our biggest industry. We are the world’s largest exporter of dairy and sheep meat, and 95 per cent of the dairy products of farms produced is exported offshore. Wetland loss in New Zealand has been more significant than in most parts of the world, and ecosystems in fertile lowlands have been most severely impacted by agricultural development.

Approximately 90 per cent of Aotearoa’s wetlands have been destroyed since European settlement. The principal agents of wetland destruction include draining, burning and clearing of these important ecosystems for farmland, as well as the ‘reclamation’ of wetlands for urban and industrial uses.

In a time of multiple ecological crises, wetlands are a crucial tool for climate adaptation. Wetlands stabilise coastlines, buffer against extreme weather events, and reduce the risk of soil erosion by filtering the nutrients. They are also a hub for biodiversity, with up to a fifth of native bird species use wetlands as their primary habitat, relying on a linked series of wetlands for resting and feeding. One of the biggest issues for wetlands besides being drained for agriculture is that the remnants cannot cope with the huge amounts of nutrient and sediment runoff from industry. This causes the degradation of the quality of the water and disrupts the equilibrium these environments contain, making it hard for whitebait, eels, birds and other native freshwater species to survive. As Margaret Foster has documented, for Māori, the removal of these natural waterways, plants and fish has diminished the capacity for hapū (sub-tribe) and whānau (family) to provide for their physical, cultural and spiritual needs.[1]

This degradation of wetlands was inherited by a tried and tested method of quantifying and measuring value inherited from British settlers. This system of native titling was developed out of the brutal displacement and dispossession of thousands of Irish people in the 17th century under the direction of the economist William Petty, who surveyed the land that was to be confiscated and given to Oliver Cromwell’s invading soldiers. It’s worth noting that philosopher John Locke and economist Adam Smith were deeply influenced by Petty’s ideas around economic productivity and quantification of land and people. This titling system deeply impacted ways of relating to land that do not conform to capitalist property norms.

As Brenna Bbandar argues in The Colonial Lives of Property, this ideological enterprise defined people and land as unproductive in relation to agricultural production and deemed them to be waste or in need of improvement.A prevalent myth perpetuated by Pākehā settlers was that Pākehā use of land was productive, while Māori use of land was not, based on a racist assumption that Indigenous cultures are economies of waste. British colonialism was underpinned by converting land to ‘property’, a commodity to be owned, whereas Māori shared in the collective duty of kaitiakitanga. For Māori, you cannot ‘own’ land as either an individual, company or some other setup: you can only exercise responsibilities and rights in respect of it (land and earth mother, Papatūānuku).

By contrast, capitalism is predicated on property’s convertibility and exchange. Margaret Foster again notes that,The transformation of the ancestral landscape to conform to European concepts of productive land use steadied the ecological decline of the function of wetlands and their life-supporting capacity. The quantification of land usage altered the relationship Māori had with the natural environment. This disconnection from whenua, the land, culminated in the reduction of customary and local ecological knowledge of an ancestral area, along with its flora, fauna and harvesting practices. This severely weakened and disrupted the transmission of knowledge and the ability for Māori communities to assess the extent and impact of changes made to their land. Additionally, the introduction of new intensive farming techniques and of foreign flora and fauna meant that Māori communities had to become reliant upon the local settler economy and their agricultural technology.

In the early 1900s the invention of refrigeration signified a pivotal technological advancement in the farming sector. The first shipment of frozen meat departed from Aotearoa in 1882 from Koputai (Port Chambers, Dunedin), carrying almost five thousand carcasses to London. This was a watershed moment for the Aotearoa economy, but was to become a disaster for the natural environment. Refrigeration meant that products such as Butter could be shipped to England, but it also dealt a serious blow to wetlands around Aotearoa, 90 per cent of which were drained by the 1930s.

Ciaran Banks and Huhana Smith, Wero Iti | Little Stabs, 2022, Coffee saks, coffee sack thread, jute thread, biochar paint (crushed biochar, metyll cellulose), blued tacks, felt tip black pen, birch plywood; Waro Hou | New Black, 2022, biochar, PVA glue, birch plywood, flet tip black pen; Kua pahemo te parakipere | Blackberry has gone, 2022, ripple plastic, hemp weedmat, biochar paint (crushed biochar, methyll cellulose), felt tip black pen, birch plywood. Courtesy of the artists. Photo: Bryan James.

Ka hoki ki te kainga—returning home

The daughter of an Australian farmer and a Māori mother, Smith moved to Aotearoa in the 1990s to study in the Māori visual arts programme at Massey University, in Palmerston North. It was here that Smith went on a journey to investigate her mother’s whenua.

Filled with the vivid stories she had heard growing up, Smith felt that the land wasn’t being cared for the way that it should nor was it being cared for in a way that honoured her ancestors or appreciated the cultural and spiritual relationships that mana whenua had to Te Hākari. Māori are connected to these waterways through whakapapa. This word is often translated simply as genealogy, but its meaning extends far beyond this simplistic definition. As the Māori academic Georgina Tuari Stewart has noted, a better way of thinking about it would be layer upon layer, as it is made up of the causative prefix ‘whaka’ and the stem word ‘papa’ with a literal meaning of ground or layer, which calls to Papatūānuku. This process could be described as to creating ‘layers’, and describes a kind of web or takarangi (double helix) of ever-expanding connections between humans and non-humans.

In the words of Paul Tapsell, “…these are sites where our tīpuna (ancestors) were born, raised, flourished, fought, had children and died, and where we, too, might be buried one day.”

Coming from Australia armed with an understanding of the spiritual and cultural relationship Indigenous people hold to whenua, Smith started to question decisions being made by whānau members around their farming practices and the way they were using land. The first thing that particularly perturbed her was the planting of pine on known urupā (graveyard) sites and the kinds of intensive farming practices that greatly affected the soil and water quality. Starting in the early to mid-1990s, Smith and her whānau have been restoring the Te Hākari wetland back to ecological health.

Utilising a hands-on kaupapa Māori research structure, which both collects cultural knowledges and places Māori knowledge systems within whenua, awa, repo and moana—but also considers the ways in which Pākehā science and legislation can help to build the capacity for healing this environment. One such method, as documented by Smith, was to make use in 2002 of a covenant (kawenata) in the Conservation Act (1987). Under section 29, with the agreement of Māori landowners, a kawenata can be put in place over an area that is deemed to be of high conservation significance. Then-conservation minister Sandra Lee worked alongside mana whenua (the Tahamata Incorporation) and adjacent farm owners to manage, preserve and protect 13.7 hectares of land.

When Smith started to work alongside her hapū to restore the mauri (life force) of Te Hākari, she observed how this greatly impacted the relationships many whānau had to the whenua:

I think that with this kind of work, wetland restoration, I can safely say we had Māori who were kaitiaki and Māori who weren’t. And that was just part of a legacy of lost relationships…

What Smith had not anticipated is how the work would offer hapū the ability to come together and heal not only the whenua, but their relationship to the whenua and to each other. A huge part of this project has been to advocate the wisdom of elders as a process of ‘knowing their place’ through consultation and extensive dialogue with elders around their cultural memories and how certain areas pertained specific spiritual and socio-cultural significance.[2] These dialogues happened alongside other quantitative research approaches with external specialists, ecologists, environmentalists, students, Indigenous scholars, local and regional authorities, farmers and other government agencies. This showed Smith the beauty of working in an expansive kaupapa Māori framework. As Te Ahukaramuu Charles Taylor explains, Kaupapa Māori involves pulling different or new knowledge systems to better understand the historical and contemporary dimensions of power structures within New Zealand. It is a dynamic approach to constructing new subjectivities and an essential way in which Māori and Pākehā communities can work together to solve common problems.

Left: Phil Stevens, Biochar kiln; Right: Monique Jansen, Waewae parkura, 2022, Biochar, hemp weedmat. Courtesy of the artists. Photo: Bryan James.

I orea te tuatara ka patu ki waho—A problem is solved by continuing to find solutions

This rehabilitation has been a process where iwi and hapū have been encouraged to envisage ways of relating to the natural environment. Smith and her whānau have undertaken customary knowledge practices as a valued source of knowledge and as a way of embracing an integrated biocultural system that maintains the mana of people in relation to place. Another way this has been possible has been through navigating the fraught legislative processes available to them.

The inaction of the authorities has at times created difficulties for iwi and hapū, especially in terms of restoring and/or maintaining cultural and spiritual values in landscape.[3] Within the      Resource Management Act 1991 there is a recognition and provision for the values of both Māori and Pākehā. Within the NZ Historic Places Trust Act (HPA) (1994) there is a provision for registering and protecting historically and culturally significant sites related to both Māori and Pākehā. Both pieces of legislations have been amended to include aspects of Māori heritage management, allowing Smith and her whānau to better protect their whenua. This legal protection and the introduction of using biochar to reinvigorate and restore Te Hākari has meant that the group has been able to continue to find solutions.

Biochar in particular has been successful in restoring this once abundant wetland. Produced by burning organic material from agricultural and forest wastes in a kiln through a process known as pyrolysis, biochar is modelled after a nearly two-thousand-year-old practice gleaned from the Amazonian basin, whose Indigenous people created rich biodiverse soils that they called ‘terra preta’—or dark earth. In an interview, Smith explained that ‘biochar helps retain water and creates a water filter. It absorbs and takes nitrates and phosphates out of the waters, so it has water-healing properties.’ The area of Kuku itself had been renowned for its healing properties.

Through the better understanding of how historic and contemporary activities have polluted these waterways, Smith, her whānau and their many allies have been able to focus on positive actions such as these to try to heal the whenua in Kuku and in turn heal themselves and their own relationship to the land.

What’s at stake

A recent report by Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research and Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga outlined the vulnerability Māori have to climate change, particularly those who live in coastal areas. Approximately 191 marae across the country are within one kilometre of the coastline. Of those, forty-one are exposed to coastal flooding. The report also noted that Māori were especially vulnerable to losing traditional knowledge and cultural practices as rising sea levels, heatwaves and storms threatened sacred sites such as urupā, as well as increasing the risk of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. Cyclone Gabrielle, which tore through the east coast of the North Island earlier this year, impacted already vulnerable Māori communities and caused $15-20 billion dollars in damage. More worryingly though the cyclone killed eleven people and many more lost their homes and their livelihoods.

Ko wai mātou—we are water

In his essay ‘Politics and knowledge: Kaupapa Maori and Matauranga Maori’, Te Ahukaramuu Charles Taylor’s (Ngāti Whanaunga, Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāti Tamaterā,Ngā Puhi) describes the multitude of meanings that are carried in the term ‘Māori’. Māori can simply mean ‘natural’, for instance in the word ‘waimāori’, which means fresh water.[4] An inherent part of being Māori is not just that our bodies are made up of almost 80 per cent water. It also can relate to who we are, our name, our ancestral places and the waters that sustained our ancestors.[5] We are nourished, shaped by, and dependent upon the waters and currents around us. Our wetlands, springs, rivers, streams and oceans have long been sources of food and sustenance, routes for voyaging and trade, and repositories of spiritual knowledge and a sense of identity.

Knowing that large parts of the cyclone-ravaged Hawkes Bay, not unlike so many other areas of this country were once wetlands, brings to the surface the necessity and urgency of the work of groups like Smith, her whānau and their allies. Their work offers creative and artistic solutions to the threats posed by decades of irresponsible land and water management. To build resilient communities, we need to strengthen our cultural and spiritual relationships so that we can start to try and heal damaged ecosystems before it’s too late.



[1] Margaret Foster, ‘Recovering our ancestral landscapes: A wetland’s story’, Māori And The Environment: Kaitiaki, Rachael Selby, Pātaka Moore and Malcolm Mulholland (eds). (Wellington: Huia, 2010), 199.

[2] Huhana Smith, ‘Hei whenua ora ki te Hākari. Reinstating the Mauri of Valued Ecosystems: History, Lessons and Experiences from the Hei Whenua Ora Te Hākari/Te Hākari Dune Wetland Restoration Project’, Ngā Māaramatanga-ā-Papa (Iwi Ecosystem Services). Research Monograph Series No.9, 2012, 9-10.

[3] Huhana Smith, ‘Mā te whakaaro, mā te kotahitanga, ka whai oranga Te Taiaio’, Māori And The Environment: Kaitiaki,303-304.

[4] Te Ahukaramuu Charles Taylor, ‘Politics and Knowledge: Kaupapa Maori and Matauranga Maori’, 31.

[5] Ariana Tikao, ‘Once there was nothing but water’, Māori Moving Image. Bridget Reweti and Melanie Oliver (eds). (Christchurch: Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū, 2022)

Header image: Wetland on the north bank of the Waimakiriri river, Flickr

This piece is sponsored by CoPower, Australia’s first non-profit energy co-operative. To find out more about CoPower’s mission, services, and impact funding, jump online at https://www.cooperativepower.org.au/ or call 03 9068 6036 today.


Hana Pera Aoake

Hana Pera Aoake (Ngaati Hinerangi, Ngaati Raukawa, Ngaati Mahuta, Tainui/ Waikato, Tauranga Moana) is an artist, writer and curator based in Aotearoa. They coorganise Kei te pai press with Morgan Godfery (Te Pahipoto, Sāmoa). Hana has a book, A bathful of kawakawa and hot water (2020) and is the curator of the Kawerau Museum, but most importantly is Miriama Jean’s māmā.

More by Hana Pera Aoake ›

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  1. Thanks for sharing this.
    Amazed what I learn reading indigenous stories about different places throughout Aotearoa

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