Mountains to Sea is a new book about New Zealand’s freshwater crisis. It is edited by Mike Joy, an outspoken freshwater scientist and policy researcher, who has brought together kōrero from 10 authors looking at what has gone wrong with te wai o Aotearoa, and how to fix it.
Two chapters, in particular, focus on iwi perspectives on water issues, as Kennedy Warne explains, beginning with Tina Ngata’s view that restoring the environment begins with restoring relationships.
Tina Ngata, a Ngāti Porou environmental advocate, says the ability to be effective water guardians relies on restoring a language of water interactions — te reo o te awa.
Our ability to care for and protect rivers, lakes, and wetlands is based on our ability to hear what they are saying to us — and that’s determined by the quality of our interactions with water.
“Water has intelligence, comprised of its nature and the multitude of life forms within it that respond to various stimuli,” she writes. “Water communicates its needs to us, and our comprehension depends entirely upon the intimacy of our relationship with it.”
In her view, intimacy is at the heart of kaitiakitanga, and kaitiakitanga is inseparable from ahi kaa — and it is only those who live in intimate contact with their waterways who can discern their needs and make appropriate governance responses.
As often as not, this kind of relationship to an awa involves grieving over its decline.
Environmental damage, from a Māori perspective, is “part of a larger story of colonisation, urban migration and the loss of ancestral knowledge around care and communication with nature.” Fulfilling the role of kaitiaki can only occur when those who would speak and act for rivers are living in their rohe.
“Rematriation” is the term she uses — an evocative word that speaks of a physical and spiritual return to Papatūānuku and the restoration of a people to their ancestral lands.
“Rematriation acknowledges,” she writes, “that our ancestors lived in spiritual relationship with our lands for thousands of years, and that we have a sacred duty to maintain that relationship for the benefit of our future generations.
“We must physically be beside our waterways in order to utilise them, to speak with them, to listen to them and what they are saying through their scent, through their sound, through the taste of their kai, through their levels, through the life within them (or lack thereof), in order to realise this sacred relationship.”
You can’t be a kaitiaki from a distance, she writes. Yet this is the condition so many indigenous people find themselves in — trying to fulfil their responsibilities to the land while being physically prevented from participating in the life of the land. Social policies that forced urbanisation on a rurally-dispersed population deprived Māori of their ability to retain kaitiaki relationships and fulfil their roles.
Similarly, vital cultural capital, “the richest resource for sustainable practice left to us by our ancestors, developed over generations of living in connection to these lands and waters,” has been gutted through policy failure to support language, uphold cultural practices and respect protocol.
“For this reason,” she writes, “when others come to talk to us about the well-being of our waterways, we will often wind up talking about the well-being of our people, and our culture. For us, they are all one and the same thing, enshrined through whakapapa, enhanced through familiarity.”
Because whenua and tangata are indivisible, Tina arrives at the conclusion that the best thing that can happen to restore the health of the awa of Aotearoa is the restoration of Māori relationships to ancestral waterways.
This, she says, is the future she wants for her people: “The honouring of our divine whakapapa, our genealogical relationship to and intimate interdependency with the waters. The return of our fluency in the communication of the awa, and responsiveness to the needs of our awa.”
She believes this restoration journey won’t be easy. It will require skilful use of political, legislative, economic, and educational tools. It will demand bold conversations around wielding and distributing power within settler–colonial systems.
“If we wish to envision a future that truly moves beyond our presumptions of ecological dominion, we must also consider the framework of domination that our very nation is built upon.”
That framework is already being adjusted in positive ways, she writes. The granting of legal personhood to Te Urewera ranges, Whanganui River, and Mt Taranaki “recognises a shift in the colonial systems of conservation and care, towards perspectives that are rooted in Māori ancestry and centred in rights of care rather than rights of ownership.
“In celebrating these steps, we must always remember that the displacement of our people from their traditional roles of authority and care in relation to our lands, rivers, and mountains remains an act of injustice that can only be fully restored when our relationship to them is fully restored.”
The time is ripe, Tina believes, for all iwi to develop co-governance and co-management arrangements over water, and to work with the Crown “to define their own expectations and means of care for their ancestral waters.”
The message of a changing framework in conversation is echoed by two other contributors in Mountains to Sea. They are Paul Tapsell, an anthropologist, and Alison Dewes, an agricultural advisor, who jointly contribute a chapter entitled “One world, one health, one humanity — whenua, rongoā, tangata.”
They say that, while the country has come some distance towards dismantling colonial attitudes to Māori, the colonial mindset concerning land and water remains: “While we have shifted our world view concerning colonial exploitation of Māori, our attitude toward the most precious of all resources, whenua — soil and water — has stagnated and been obfuscated by another type of colonisation: one built on resource exploitation that has thrown the mauri of our previously taken-for-granted system out of balance.”
An agenda of economic growth without limits, disregard for indigenous knowledge systems, and wilful blindness towards environmental degradation has brought Aotearoa to a crisis of “pollution, poisoning and extinction,” they write. We have jettisoned an older value system based on belonging rather than owning, and put at risk the world of Papatūānuku, with “all her dependent organisms, not least ourselves.”
“Our nation is at a critical tipping point, not just environmentally, but socially. Disconnection from whenua directly correlates with poorer Māori health, education, housing and employment.”
Their view is that disconnection has happened not just in the cities, where it is on most obvious display, but in the rural heartland, and they believe that “if Māori values are not brought back to the farming table under an inclusive partnership model — reuniting descendants with their flow of life or wairua — then we, as a nation, risk descending even deeper into a cross-generational crisis of Māori disconnection, exclusion and unrest.”
This is perhaps the key message of Mountains to Sea: that the human–nature disconnect is the cause of New Zealand’s freshwater crisis, and likewise a reconnect is its solution. Leaving behind the tired, failed “economy or environment” paradigm and embracing an integrated way of thinking — not “either/or” but “both/and” — is the key, according to Chris Perley, a sustainability researcher, in the book’s final chapter.
Yes, we can know landscapes as “interconnected socio-ecological systems,” he writes. “We can restore environmental, social and economic health to place. We can restore the functions of water regulation to mitigate or avoid droughts and downstream floods. We can improve biodiversity, and with it the economic and social benefits biodiversity gifts to us all.”
Mountains to Sea is a BWB text published by Bridget Williams Books.
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