Customary Approaches to Ecosystem Resilience

Researchers are investigating how the application of kaitiakitanga (Māori guardianship) approaches contribute to reversing the decline of New Zealand’s biodiversity, and support the relationship of Māori communities with their environments.

This research is Completed

Overview Te Tirohanga Whānui

The project is led jointly by Dr Phil Lyver of Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research and Nigel Scott of Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu, and directed by the Ngāi Tahu Advisory Committee chaired by David Higgins. The multi-disciplinary research team is providing evidence to support reforms in conservation laws that currently obstruct tangata tiaki (local guardian) roles and aspirations.

It responds to a 2011 report by the Waitangi Tribunal, Ko Aotearoa Tēnei – Report into Claims Concerning New Zealand Law and Policy Affecting Māori Culture and Identity. The report found the current regulatory environment excludes Māori from participating in decisions around issues of vital importance to their culture, such as flora, fauna and the wider environment.

Researchers are aiming to develop a framework that provides the basis for informed and inclusive decision-making about environmental conservation.

Members of the team are also working with kaumātua (elders) and tangata tiaki from the tribal groups of Tuhoe Tuawhenua Trust (Te Urewera) and Ngāti Hauā (Waikato) to understand values and constructs for biocultural restoration of forests and wetlands.

The contributions of Indigenous peoples to conservation and environmental management are important globally because they offer alternate perspectives centered on the quality of the relationship between humans and the environment.

They also bring unique approaches to the sustainable use of natural resources.

Indigenous peoples’ cultures are commonly embedded within complex social-ecological systems, with the functions of these intricately woven together.

However, the following things interfere with indigenous peoples’ connections and relationships with nature:

  • suppression of rights and culture by governments
  • degradation of biodiversity
  • conflict over access to, and use of, natural resources
  • ongoing land-use intensification.

In addition, Indigenous people, including tangata whenua, confront ongoing challenges applying their worldviews within biocentric-based conservation management.


Kia mau tonu ki ngā tāonga tapu o ngā Mātua Tūpuna

– Hold fast to the sacred treasures of our ancestors

Research Area Summary Te Whakarāpopototanga Kaupapa

The team is providing evidence to support increased local decision-making by tangata tiaki in conservation through four key themes:

  • The effect of kaitiakitanga on black swan populations and their habitats will be evaluated. In association, environmental and management factors that affect black swan populations and habitat use will also be assessed (Professor Jason Tylianakis and Mark Herse, University of Canterbury).
  • Opportunities for conservation law reforms that better empower tangata whenua (Māori) will be investigated within the current wildlife and conservation legislation (Professor Jacinta Ruru, University of Otago).
  • Kawa (customs and protocols) and tikanga (customary approaches and guidelines) for managing the environment will be explored with a number of iwi at a national scale (Phil Lyver, Ngāti Toarangatira; Nigel Scott, Ngāi Tahu; Puke Timoti, Tūhoe; Craig Pauling, Ngāi Tahu; Dr Jane Kitson, Ngāi Tahu).
  • Interviews with government representatives, landowners/farmers and tangata whenua involved in waterfowl and wetland management and harvesting will be carried out to understand tangata whenua and interest group attitudes toward kaitiakitanga approaches and practices for managing biodiversity (Dr. Sanna Malinen and Corinne Bataille, University of Canterbury).

Challenge Parties

BioHeritage’s role is to break down barriers between organisations and individual scientists by coordinating and focusing the research of top scientists from our 18 Challenge Parties.

This project is led jointly by Challenge Party Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research and Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu. Key research institutes and organisations include University of Canterbury, University of OtagoUniversity of Waikato and Kitson Consulting.

The team consists of 13 scientists and community researchers, two PhD and two MSc students. Eleven of these members are Māori. The research is directed by the Ngāi Tahu Advisory Committee, consisting of David Higgins (Chair), Don Brown, Iaean Cranwell, Cyril Gilroy, John Henry, Jane Kitson, Te Marino Lenihan, Craig Pauling, Makarini Rupene, Khyla Russell, Joe Taurima and Paul Wilson.

The team also works closely with the Tūhoe Tuawhenua TrustNgātiwai and Ngati Hauā. In addition, it has brought together researchers and tangata tiaki from four other tribal entities.

Looking for more information?

If you’re looking for any outputs (papers, data etc) from this project that you don’t see on this page please visit our data repository.

Resource outputs from this programme


Biocultural Hysteresis Inhibits Adaptation to Environmental Change

Indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLC) often use natural resources as both a reason and mechanism for environmental management, yet a number of environmental, social,…
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Complementarity of indigenous and western scientific approaches for monitoring forest state

Cross-cultural environmental monitoring systems inform on a broad suite of indicators relevant to both scientific and local communities. In this study, we used forest-plot-based survey…
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Building biocultural approaches into Aotearoa – New Zealand’s conservation future

Indigenous peoples’ roles in conservation are important because they offer alternate perspectives and knowledge centred on the quality of the human–environment relationship. Here, we present…
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Indigenous Resource Management Plans: Transporting Non-Indigenous People into the Indigenous World

The paper explores the degree to which Indigenous groups perceive that resource management plans they develop are able to help deliver outcomes they seek through…
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Insights to the functional relationships of Māori harvest practices: Customary use of a burrowing seabird

We used a deterministic age-structured model of a population of grey-faced petrels (Pterodroma gouldi). By harvesting pre-fledging chicks, rather than adult birds, Māori harvesters had…
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How do we restore New Zealand’s biological heritage by 2050?

If we are to make meaningful and measurable progress in restoring New Zealand’s biological heritage by 2050, a range of fundamental issues need to be…
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Key biocultural values to guide restoration action and planning in New Zealand

A pluralist and cross-cultural approach that accommodates differing values while encouraging the collaboration and social cohesion necessary for the complex task of ecological restoration is…
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Predicting and Assessing Progress in the Restoration of Ecosystems

We present here the rationale and a method for predicting the trajectory of restoration and assessing its progress toward a predetermined state, the endpoint, using…
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Reversing the decline in NZ’s biodiversity: empowering Maori within reformed conservation law.

Creating new conservation law that more holistically and comprehensively supports hapū and iwi leadership in conservation management should be embraced as a critical step towards…
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A representation of a Tuawhenua worldview guides environmental conservation

Cultural expressions related to the kererū demonstrated the cultural significance of the bird to Tuawhenua that went well beyond the ecological and intrinsic value of the species. The Tuawhenua worldview…
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Key Māori values strengthen the mapping of forest ecosystems services

Different value-belief systems influence the importance placed upon ecosystem services (ES) and their benefits, in particular cultural ecosystem services. We mapped forest values to interview…
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Indigenous peoples: Conservation paradox

The customs and culture of indigenous peoples often reflect a deep knowledge of local biodiversity that leads to ecologically responsible behavior. As a result, conservationists…
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