1 May 2023

'Our tīpuna knew when to move' - The difficult conversations about managed retreat for Māori

7:09 am on 1 May 2023
Illustration of coastal marae

Photo: RNZ

After the devastating impact of land loss, there is an understandable reluctance among some Māori to give up the land they have left. But the changing climate will eventually inflict more pain on the most flood-prone places.

Two kilometres south of Katikati township stands the kāinga and marae of hapū Ngāi Tamawhāirua. Hapū member Ngairo Eruera proudly describes it as "Katikati's best-kept secret".

"It's right by the highway, but you have to turn off to find it," he chuckles.

Their papakāinga is built on wetlands, with some whare located in particularly low-lying areas - "primarily because it was the only land left," Eruera explains.

A river snakes around their marae, Te Rereatukāhia, and it's calm most of the time. But when the heavy rain of Cyclone Gabrielle came pouring down in February, the river level began to rise.

"I myself live right on the wetland and so I was up all night from about midnight onwards to just keep an eye on everything," Eruera says.

Cyclone Gabrielle has been described as a one-in-100 year weather event, but scientists say floods like these are likely to be a lot more common as a result of climate change. It's a challenge that will affect people everywhere, but some communities are more vulnerable to its impacts than others. And although the hapū of Ngāi Tamawhāirua escaped Cyclone Gabrielle unscathed, Ngairo Eruera says it served as a reminder that the impacts of climate change are already on their doorstep.

"The recent cyclone, Gabrielle, really brought it to attention with the tidal change and raising of the river level, affecting the water table in the wetland."

Eruera and his whānau moved back home in 2018 to be closer to his children's grandmother. Since then, he has taken on various leadership roles. At one stage he was chair of the marae. Now, he's stepped back from those duties, but is still passionate about finding Māori-based solutions to climate change.

In 2020, the hapū engaged with Takarangi Research, a small research team, that started working to develop tikanga-based and community-relevant responses to climate change.

"Some of the current flood mapping indicates housing areas through low-lying parts of the kāinga, definitely through the wetland, will be inundated," he says.

"The reality is that within 50 to 100 years, we're talking about relocation of the current kāinga," Eruera says. "We understand that this could not probably be part of the current generation's solution, but it will definitely be part of our solution around our tamariki."

So what happens when the whenua you are inherently tied to through whakapapa becomes uninhabitable?

The fear of 'managed retreat'

Māori have inhabited coastal and low-lying areas for generations, developing deep cultural and spiritual connections to these places. For some, abandoning their ancestral whenua and relocating elsewhere can be seen as a loss of identity and connection to their whakapapa. On top of that, past experiences of land loss through government-sanctioned land confiscation has resulted in intergenerational trauma.

Eruera says the conversations are tense.

"It's really difficult for them to imagine moving anywhere else, because the connection and the activation of memories are so tied in with where they are in terms of their location.

"For some of them it's almost entrenched in them, this view to stay put. And we have to respect that but that doesn't mean we have to like it."

Ngairo Eruera stands in front of Te Rereatukāhia marae, two kilometres south of Katikati.

Ngairo Eruera Photo: Supplied

Ngairo Eruera says he's not afraid of the phrase 'managed retreat' and doesn't want others to be either.

"[We're saying to them] we understand Koro, Nan, Aunty, Uncle, where you are coming from, but we are not going to abide the fact that a natural event may take your life. The discussion isn't going to go well but the action around preservation of life is probably what's going to win out the debate in the end."

Ngairo Eruera says that pre-European arrival, his tīpuna were more nomadic in their way of life. Moving seasonally for kai-gathering purposes.

"There's so little land left that we cannot live the way we used to, which has raised three or four generations of just staying put. Traditionally, definitely pre-European, our people were quite comfortably transitional.

"The kāinga where we are now was actually, I'd almost call it a summer home, it's a fishing space. So they would come down when the fishing was good, when it was time to collect kaimoana. That was the settlement that the people would move down to during the seasons and then of course, with activities like fowling and planting, they would move to those spaces where the environment was a bit better equipped."

Illustration of Red Snapper swimming

Photo: RNZ

He says they need to harness the matauranga passed down through generations to adapt to climate change.

"Part of these discussions is really about how we communicate to our people and getting them to understand that the way we are now, isn't the way we were traditionally. Our tīpuna knew when to move, that's how they got to Aotearoa."

The most vulnerable to climate events

A report published in 2021 highlighted the impacts that climate change will have on Māori in the coming decades. Titled "He huringa āhurangi, he huringa ao - a changing climate, a changing world" by Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research and Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga, it's a stocktake of recent research.

The report noted the specific vulnerabilities of Māori when it came to the possibility of losing traditional knowledge and cultural practices as rising sea levels and increased storm surges may threaten coastal marae and urupā. It also suggested climate change may exacerbate existing health inequities for Māori, as extreme weather events such as heatwaves and storms may increase the risk of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.

In times of crisis marae often play a critical role, acting as a community hub, providing kai, mattresses and a roof to sleep under.

The rural town of Te Wairoa sits on the East Coast of the North Island between Napier and Gisborne. When Cyclone Gabrielle came, the town was essentially underwater, muddy and sodden. The destruction of Putorino Bridge and damage to State Highway 2 meant there was no way to get in or out. Supplies had to be flown in via helicopter and mobile networks were down leaving residents uncontactable.

As a result of the storm, a third of the homes in Wairoa were damaged and around 150 households were displaced.

Tātau Tātau o Te Wairoa Trust is an iwi organisation set up post-Treaty settlement to manage pūtea. Chair Leon Symes says more than 70% percent of the homes that were damaged by the floods were occupied by Māori, and 60% percent were rentals. Many are uninsured.

But this isn't the first time the town has seen a weather event like this. Wairoa was hit hard by Cyclone Bola in 1988. Symes says houses that suffered damage then, were flooded again this time.

"It's quite disheartening to see some of that happen again, it was a known issue previously with Cyclone Bola but now it's come back again and nothing has been done since then. So we need to do something this time around to make sure it doesn't happen again."

He says there are two major marae affected on the north side of town, Takitimu and Tāwhiti a Maru.

"It has an impact, particularly for the township, and particularly for us [as Māori], when we see a lot of whānau and not only our own members, but also other whānau from throughout the motu as well being impacted. We need to make sure that when we're talking about initiatives, that we don't leave anyone behind."

Since the cyclone, Symes says they've had their heads down focussing on the recovery. Tātau Tātau o Te Wairoa has provided $2.5 million for damage assessments on hundreds of flood ravaged homes. It's the first stage of their three stage plan for recovery. The rest of the repair costs are estimated to be at least $10 million.

Symes says many in the area aren't ready to relocate and the conversations get difficult when the phrase 'managed retreat' is brought up.

"The connection to the whenua is quite strong with some of the whānau and we know that they're not going to leave, and we don't want them to leave. We just need to make sure we've got options in our kete that enables them to remain where they are, and have protection mechanisms."

Other hapū spoken to by RNZ also expressed wariness about relocation and said conversations need to be had internally first before decisions are made.

"It comes down to what the marae and hapū particularly want and the aspirations they have," says Symes.

"I know there's been other marae around the mōtu who know they need to move.

"There hasn't been a lot of people wanting to leave the whenua, but we need to develop those mitigation strategies to make sure it doesn't flood again. Whether that's stop banks or other means to ensure the water takes a different path.

"They definitely don't want to move, they want to stay where they are, which is understandable given their strong connection to the whenua. We don't want to be in a position to make them move and have 'red zones'. But if whānau want to leave we need to provide them with an option for a managed retreat."

He echoes the sentiments of Ngairo Eruera about looking to the past in order to move forward.

"There's going to come a time when we need whānau to make a decision, but at least they can be informed on what those options are first and foremost, before being forced into something that may not be what they really want to do."

And it's not just an issue for Wairoa or Ngāi Tamawhāirua to be thinking about. According to some reports, of the almost 800 marae situated across Aotearoa, 80 percent are built on low-lying coastal land or flood prone rivers.

Map of Aotearoa indicating locations of 191 coastal marae

Photo: RNZ

In 2021, research by PhD student Akuhata Bailey-Winata (Ngāti Whakaue, Tūhourangi, Ngāti Tutetawha and Nāti Tawhaki), showed that a total of 191 marae across the country are within 1 kilometre of the coastline. Of those, 41 are exposed to coastal flooding during a one-in-100 year storm.

Bailey-Winiata also looked at coastal urupā (Māori burial sites) in the Bay of Plenty region. He found 40 percent are situated less than 10m above average sea level. The research shows that Māori food sources will also be at risk.

Urupā are highly important places to Māori. The traditional burial grounds are where members of the hapū, iwi and whānau can visit to commemorate their loved ones. Kōiwi (human bones) are of the utmost tapū and significance.

In the small Hawke's Bay town of Pōrangahau, Rongomaraeroa Marae, and the kaiwhitikitiki urupā were damaged. Graves were flooded and headstones were knocked over by the strong flooding that rushed through.

In Omahu, their marae was severely damaged by Cyclone Gabrielle and flood waters unearthed kōiwi at their urupā. These are just some examples of the countless impacts of sea-level rise across the rohe.

So where to from here?

Last year, the government published the first national adaptation plan and first emissions reductions plan. The Ministry for the Environment says partnership with Māori is an essential foundation for both these documents.

In May 2022, Minister for Climate Change James Shaw announced $30.5 million would go towards the creation of a platform for Māori climate action.

The aim of the platform is to ensure that the work already under way on mitigation and adaptation to climate change is done in partnership with Māori and to make it easier for Māori communities to engage. The platform will also play a key part in the Emissions Reduction plan and in how Māori-led climate strategies, actions and solutions are embedded.

The two phase plan has already started phase one which included appointing an interim ministerial advisory committee in November last year. The committee is currently designing and developing proposals for a permanent platform. Phase two will focus on implementing those proposals and building the platform, due to launch in 2024.

University of Auckland law professor and rongomau taketake at the Human Rights Commission Claire Charters says it is essential Māori are at the decision-making table because the impact falls disproportionately on them.

"Māori often have poorer housing statistics. There's more people living in homes that are less safe, there's more often rentals, so when you have events of flooding - any severe weather event really - there's a real risk that Māori will be disproportionately impacted."

Claire Charters is wearing glasses with long brown hair, she is sitting down and is looking upwards, as if she is listening.

Claire Charters Photo: Provided

Charters (Ngāti Whakaue, Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Ngāpuhi), says it is an issue affecting indigenous people across the world.

But specifically for Māori, there is a fundamental difference in values when it comes to being kaitiaki of the taiao.

"That ethos of papatūānuku coming first, rather than being about extracting resources as much as possible. That ethos is appreciated globally as being far better as a philosophical basis to think about or to address climate change. It's fundamentally different as an approach and so it means you make decisions differently," Charters says.

"I think they should be at the tables, where decisions about climate change, and about responses to climate change are being made, because there's that kind of instrumental value of being there and influencing decision making."

She says this is true of the response to Cyclone Gabrielle.

"There's been a number of instances where Māori communities have come together to provide shelter for their own, to provide support for their own, to provide food for their own. This has happened in marae spaces. Way before civil emergency people were able to get in, way before there's been any governmental response.

"We can do that better potentially than the government, because we're localised, we know what our people need. We can see it, we're responding to it."

But it has to be proactive, not reactive, she says.

"There has been some support by government for Māori organisations to provide that support, it's just that that has to be part of the structural thinking. Not just in response to Gabrielle because that was happening. We should be preempting that and having it in the legislative framework."

In a statement, the Ministry for the Environment said managed retreat is one option that can be used to get ahead of the risks posed by climate change.

"Other options include protecting (such as building stop banks, sea walls, or improving stormwater systems) or accommodating to live with nature (such as raising properties). However, in some areas it is already becoming clear that these can only be a temporary solution. Communities feeling the most severe impacts of climate change will face some difficult choices."

It said the Ministry recently organised a series of regional hui to allow for 'face-to-face' conversations with Māori about resource management reform. It also included kōrero around climate adaptation and managed retreat.

"This builds on previous kōrero during the development of the national adaptation plan and emissions reduction plan."

Back on the whenua of Ngāi Tamawhāirua, Ngairo Eruera explains that these environmental issues are nothing new for Māori.

"This is a millions of years old conflict between Tane [Mahuta] and Tāwhirimātea and Tangaroa, it's just playing its part really. If we think about it from a cultural perspective. This is nothing new to our purview on the world. It's just reached a point where we are getting caught in the middle.

"We need to start having a bit of a kōrero about how we can still have our relationship with the taiao but also look after ourselves and set up a place that's advantageous for our tamariki and our mokopuna, when it's time to do their thing."