The Conservation Conundrum

Apr 23, 2013


Over the past four years, the Department of Conservation has had $54 million slashed from its budget. What will these cuts mean for Te Waipounamu and Ngāi Tahu? Kaituhituhi Kim Triegaardt investigates.

Photography Tony Bridge (main) and Raoul Butler.

It was a small farewell at Te Rau Aroha Marae in Bluff, late last year – an end to a relationship that had spanned several decades.

Matapura Ellison, David Higgins and Stephen Bragg had been Pou Kura Taiao – environmental ethics advisors – for the Department of Conservation (DOC) Otago Conservancy. They had worked hard to develop relationships between hapū and rūnaka and DOC. Now they were being cut loose, made redundant. Their disestablished role as a result of a budget cutback left southern Ngāi Tahu wondering about DOC’s commitment to working with the tribe.

For Ellison, redundancy closed the door on a chapter of his life that began 21 years ago when the Pou Kura Taiao began facilitating relationships between hapū and their rūnaka and TRoNT Te Rūnanga and DOC.

“I worked with the guiding principles that I was brought up with, that iwi place quite an emphasis on sustainable use within the framework of kaitiakitaka – sustainability as a key to using resources. It is a philosophy we grew up with on the marae.

“It was always a tightrope trying to find ways to overcome the chasm which existed between this philosophy and the tenets underpinning DOC’s legislation,” he says.

Currently DOC is going through a “delivery project” in an attempt to shave nearly $7.5 million off its budget. Ninety-six jobs have already been lost. Despite the cutbacks over the last four years, DOC says it intends to grow the number of partnerships with tangata whenua. In this year’s output plan, they’ve indicated 174 partnerships, compared to last year’s 147. It’s set a target date of 2014 for increased engagement with councils, iwi and communities to achieve conservation outcomes.

So what will it mean for Te Waipounamu?

The Crown owns nearly 30 percent of New Zealand’s land mass in the form of 14 national parks that cover around five million hectares. Spectacular mountain ranges, beautiful rivers, lakes, and coastlines are all managed by the Department of Conservation under a mandate derived from the Conservation Act 1987.

By far the largest proportion of DOC’s so-called “Conservation Estate” lies within the Ngāi Tahu Te Waipounamu rohe. It is land Ngāi Tahu has been anxious to reclaim ever since 1849, when rangatira Matiaha Tiramorehu pointed out that Ngāi Tahu wanted to keep areas that had unscrupulously been absorbed into the land purchases of the time.

This grievance sowed the seeds for a discordant relationship that ebbs and flows with time and the leadership of the day. While the Conservation Act gave with one hand, directing DOC to adhere to the principles of the Treaty under Section 4, it took away with the other by providing for the preservation and protection of flora and fauna. This made it impossible in conservation areas for Māori to hunt and gather as they had done traditionally for centuries. The Wildlife Act 1953 and the Native Plants Protection Act 1934 restricted traditional food foraging activities through a permit system.

The struggle became focused on how to align Pākehā conservation values of preserving and protecting something for its intrinsic beauty or uniqueness, with the Māori view that an area is special because it has deep spiritual or cultural significance.

Conservation became a key platform in the Ngāi Tahu Claims Settlement Act 1998, says Tā Tipene O’Regan, principal negotiator of the Ngāi Tahu Settlement.

“It started with the Fiordland National Park, because while the Waitangi Tribunal was asked for co-management, what was more important for us was to have control over the interpretation of the park. We sought control of what was said about us; our histories in the land, our stories, our names for places, plants and species. For us Fiordland is the cradle of creation, and the place is full of great stories and the names that originate from that. It’s a region of enormous cultural and spiritual significance.”

The Ngāi Tahu settlement ensured the Crown was obliged to actively protect the Māori right to rangatiratanga or stewardship, and there was greater recognition of the special cultural value of certain mountaintops, lakes and valleys that were declared tōpuni. Some native birds, plants, animals and fish were declared taonga.

Tā Tipene says the relationship has grown since settlement, but cautions that there is still some way to go. “There’s been incremental change but not when it comes to defining customary rights. I still would like to see a clear and dynamic articulation of customary rights and I think until we get that, we are probably stalled.” DOC Director-General/Tumuaki-Ahurei Al Morrison agrees that the relationship between Ngāi Tahu and DOC is not being managed as it should be, but says it is not DOC’s role to define those rights.

“Our role is to understand and respect those rights, and where issues arise out of that, to work through them with Ngāi Tahu. This involves implementing the relevant provisions and protocols under the Ngāi Tahu settlement, but it also means acknowledging that the relationship is a dynamic one that continues to evolve.”

Morrison says these partnerships reflect the strategic direction of DOC. “It’s an approach with others, including iwi, business, local government, private landowners and community groups that will allow DOC to provide support for others to lead in conservation.

“That was provoked by a realisation that we were not achieving enough for conservation, that the resources to halt the decline of species and restore ecosystem health were always going to be beyond us alone, and that we needed to work better and to a greater extent in partnership with others to achieve success,” Morrison says.

He acknowledges that the time and energy that has gone into developing and implementing this change programme has in all likelihood distracted DOC from managing and developing its relationship with Ngāi Tahu. But he is quick to add that the new partnership approach has nothing to do with the budget cuts.

“The department is currently looking at new ways of engaging with iwi, within and beyond the Treaty Settlement process, to grow the conservation effort in Aotearoa.”

Former Pou Kura Taiao David Higgins, who chaired the Ngāi Tahu Conservation Wānanga held in March at Te Rau Aroha Marae, says the DOC reshuffle is still in its early days, but it feels like the business-focused model is still in the honeymoon phase.

“They (DOC) have done reasonably well getting a large number of corporations involved at this stage. Although you can put that down to the business manager and his contacts, but he’s going to run out of contacts sooner or later and then life will be a wee bit more difficult.”

Higgins says that it is worrying how many competent and professional departmental staff have “disappeared right off the radar”.


Gina Solomon and DOC community relations officer Brett Cowan (Ngāti Kurī) at a release of great – spotted kiwi in the Nina Valley. Photograph Kāhu Te Whaiti.

“There is a fair bit of angst about what is going to happen next,” he says.

It’s the work that needs to be done at iwi level that is at the heart of Matapura Ellison’s concerns.

While the Pou Kura Taiao positions have gone, they’ve been replaced by a newly-created position of Pou Tairangahau (cultural advisor). However, Ellison fears that the changes will affect Ngāi Tahu input into conservation plans.

“My biggest worry is what’s going to happen (in terms of robust iwi input) to high level statutory policy documents like the Conservation Management Strategy that should be underway already. These are plans that are signed off at high level and provide a mandate for DOC’s work on Crown lands for the next ten years.”

His concerns are echoed by Gail Thompson, a Ngāi Tahu representative on the Southland Conservation Board. Of the 96 jobs that DOC cut nationally, 10 of these went from the Southland conservancy.

She says despite Southland being such a large and important conservation area, the iwi is beginning to feel “left out”.

“We used to have the best Treaty relationship with DOC of any other government department anywhere. But in the last five years they’ve watered it down, pushed us away so that we are insignificant and we don’t even get consulted anymore. And that is coming from the top.”

Her biggest fear is that DOC won’t be taken to task for what she believes is its neglect of its Section 4 obligations. She is also concerned that there will be no action against moves that she says have seen Ngāi Tahu in Southland go from being a partner to just a stakeholder. “We are sometimes the last to hear about things.”

Andy Roberts is DOC’s Area Manager for Murihiku and the Southern Islands, in the Southland Conservancy. He says he believes the changes and subsequent focus on relationships will make them “more valuable, rather than less”.

“The Tītī/Muttonbird Islands are extremely important to us in terms of threatened species work. The eradication of rats off those islands has been very strong and that’s meant that DOC and iwi have been in conversation about those islands for as long as our relationship has been there, which is well over 30 years. This has been a starting point for the relationship and it’s created a foundation for other projects to grow from.”

Roberts does acknowledge that the flow of people in and out of the conservation authority jeopardises the institutional knowledge in the organisation, although they do try and pass it on to new recruits.

“I guess it’s changing how we go about the work. One person doesn’t make a relationship between Crown and iwi, so all our department employees have to work on those connections, whether they are rangers, maintaining tracks, restoration or species work. It’s probably moving to a healthier relationship rather than it all falling on the shoulders of one person.”

A programme Roberts says epitomises DOC’s approach to Section 4 is the Awarua Wetlands/Waituna Lagoon restoration. “We have struggled to make the progress we should have, so we’ve gone back to the start point and looked at the governance of that project. We’ve set up a structure that has the Crown and iwi as the start point, and are going to move forward from here.”

Up the rohe in Kaikōura, Gina Solomon (Ngāi Tahu, Ngāti Kuri) is a rūnanga representative on the coastal guardian group Te Korowai o Te Tai o Marokura. Her father was a cray fisherman who fished at Ōaro with his father, a hunter and gatherer. Solomon says that when her mother, who was active at Takahanga Marae, first joined the conservation board, it was Gina’s father who helped her understand her role.

“He used to say to her, ‘just tell them how we do things’, and that’s really what it’s all about. We are just sharing how we were brought up, our values and how we did things, the way we did things to ensure that our kai would be harvested sustainably, and would always be there for us all for the future.”

In both the National Parks Act 1980 and Conservation Act 1987, it was the unique beauty of the mountains that underscored the need for preservation. However, neither Act makes reference to the spiritual and cultural connections of Ngāi Tahu with the environment.

It’s this gap that a new generation of conservationists is trying to bridge. Straddling the divide between DOC and Ngāi Tahu, Strategic Iwi Relationship Manager Kara Edwards says that while she works for DOC, fundamentally she brings the knowledge of Ngāi Tahu aspirations with her to the role.

“It’s definitely a balancing act, and it’s critical that if you have people in roles who are contributing towards decision making, that they have their finger on the pulse in terms of what is important to the tribe.”

Edwards believes the Ngāi Tahu relationship with DOC overall is in a good place at the moment, but says it is largely dependent upon individual relationships on the ground.

She also hints that there needs to be a higher level of engagement to bring the tribe’s aspirations into a new framework of conservation management. “That would allow DOC to focus on iwi aspirations in their decision-making and that is what will make the difference.”

She says this is exactly the time for Ngāi Tahu to articulate what they want to achieve and what is important for the tribe.

“This is the time when there is a real opportunity for new co-operative models with mutual benefits.”

The cultural heritage mapping programme underway by the Ngāi Tahu Cultural Mapping Team is the perfect vehicle to uplift communities and strengthen Māori heritage, says Edwards. The team is collecting vast amounts of information on Ngāi Tahu lands, histories, traditions and place names.

“We need to be able to grow our youth and bring our communities along with us so we all become involved in, and responsible for the management of our takiwā.”

Solomon says that awareness of a tangata whenua perspective in conservation is slowly improving.

“We’ve proven what we can achieve, and more and more the Department is coming to ask us what we need. The conservators realise that we seem to be agreeing on a good many things and it makes sense to take the community along with them as allies.”

She cites Te Korowai o Te Tai o Marokura as an example of how DOC worked with the rūnanga to start a process of engagement with the community to develop a coastal management plan. “Back in the early days, DOC was keen to fix our seas by putting in marine reserves. But there were other tools to be considered such as the use of mātaitai, taiāpure, rāhui.” She adds that the process gave her insight into how DOC was perceived at ground level.

“I hadn’t quite realised that a lot of our community didn’t like or trust DOC as much as I thought they did. But through this process, most of which was held on the marae, we helped the community see that we all had the same interests and that we could work together. I think we’ve really taken the relationship to the next level and have brought the community closer.”

Solomon says the partnership approach to conservation land management is achieving great things; including reintroducing great-spotted kiwi/roroa to the Nina Valley in Lewis Pass thanks to the Nina Valley Restoration Group involving a group of students, parents, and teachers from Hurunui College. Other successes included the Ōaro River restoration project, Peninsula Walkway and repopulating the Kaikōura Peninsula with tītī/Hutton’s shearwater.

Solomon says the patronising, old school days of “we know how to do this better than you” have slowly been chipped away by years of kōrero by people like her uncle Bill Solomon, and her mother.

Solomon is the Ngāi Tahu representative on the Nelson/Marlborough Conservation Board, and supports her rūnanga by also working with the DOC Areas within Ngāti Kurī’s takiwā – Mahaanui and Waimakariri, in the Canterbury Conservancy.

Solomon says it is the Nelson/Marlborough Conservancy that is the strongest, by virtue of the time people have spent on developing the relationship. “But we don’t take that relationship for granted, and we are always reminding ourselves of it and also questioning things, because I think you can always do things better,” she says.

The key to making the relationship work is to realise that it’s an enduring one, says Kara Edwards. “Government departments go through cycles as a matter of course, so it means always trying to lift our game and not let the connections go flat. After all, Ngāi Tahu isn’t going anywhere.”

Ki uta ki tai – From the mountains to the sea
This term reflects the Ngāi Tahu view of environmental and resource management. It is a traditional concept representing kaitiakitanga (guardianship) from the mountains and great inland lakes, down the rivers to the hāpua (estuaries), and to the sea. Kaitiakitanga reflects the special relationship Ngāi Tahu has with its environmental heritage and fundamental to the tribe’s culture and identity.

KI-UTA-KI-TAI-FROM-THE-MOUNTAINS-TO-THE-SEA-Consequently, the heritage relationship Ngāi Tahu has with the natural world was at the heart of Te Kerēme – the Ngāi Tahu claim to its customary rights. The partial restoration of these rights has been a feature of Ngāi Tahu settlements with the Crown regarding both commercial and customary rights in land and sea fisheries resources.

An example of partnerships with the Department of Conservation that are working include the Kiwi Forever project – a youth leadership programme that is a joint venture between the Untouched World Charitable Trust, the Department of Conservation, Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu, the BNZ Save the Kiwi Trust and the University of Canterbury College of Education.

The project includes a week-long field trip to Okarito for secondary school students to do pest control, monitor plant life, and gather data. The project also promotes cultural awareness, with students discussing the Māori view of the environment and the importance of the kiwi.

Other examples include Te Pūkenga Atawhai, a programme to build cultural awareness among DOC employees; and Te Ara Poutama, a Māori Conservation cadetship and trainee ranger programme.

Nelson-born Mike Robb (Kāi Tahu/Tūāhuriri and Ngāti Kūia) recently completed a trainee ranger course and works for DOC’s Black Stilt/Kakī recovery programme in Twizel. The kakī are one of the world’s rarest and most endangered birds. Robb says the ranger course has given him more opportunities to travel and build his confidence than he ever thought possible.

“I would like to move back home sometime and help make others aware of how important conservation is. Friends and family ignore a lot of things, so I really want to work with iwi and share my knowledge with them.”

Environmental Kaitiakitanga
$15m invested in environmental protection and enhancement
Seventy nine customary fishery protection areas established including 19 Mātaitai and two Taiāpure; nine special fishery protections areas established through the Ngāi Tahu Claims Settlement Act; and 49 customary protection areas using general fisheries regulations
Planted more than 20,000 native plants at Te Waihora (Lake Ellesmere) since 2008
Buff weka population re-established in Te Waipounamu