The guardianship argument is still being used by the Maori Party despite overwhelming evidence that early Maori burned about half of the forest that covered the South Island in a reckless quest for food. An article in the Wanganui Chronicle on Thursday with Maori Party co-leader Tariana Turia’s byline on it voiced opposition to proposed changes to the Resource Management Act partly because they “undermine the role of Maori as tangata tiaki of their traditional rohe”.
We utilised the maramataka, the cycle of the moon, to decide when to plant and harvest - we hunted and fished as a food source - not as a sport and we took only what was needed. These practices enabled early Maori to sustain themselves whilst ensuring the environment was not pillaged. The connection to the resources and the environment was more than one of merely obtaining food for physical sustenance - it also reflected the spiritual connection with deities like Tane, Tangaroa and Rongo - the guardians of the forests, the waterways and cultivated foods for example. (1)But research conducted by Dr Dave McWethy from Montana State University and published nearly three years ago that reconstructed the environmental history of 16 small lakes in the South Island showed that several high-severity fire events occurred within two centuries of known Maori arrival in the 13th century. Dr McWethy said:
“The impacts of burning were more pronounced in the drier eastern forests where fires were severe enough to clear vast tracts of forest and cause significant erosion of soils and nutrients. Because initial Maori populations were small, we can only conclude that forests were highly vulnerable to burning,” (2)Previous studies by co-authors Dr Matt McGlone and Dr Janet Wilmshurst of Landcare Research showed that forests covered 85-90 percent of New Zealand prior to the arrival of Maori, but by the time Europeans settled in the mid-19th century, grass and shrubs had replaced over 40 percent of the South Island’s forests.
Dr Wilmshurst said archaeological evidence suggests that successful cultivation of introduced food crops, such as kumara and taro, was only possible in warmer northern coastal areas and so the starch-rich rhizomes of bracken fern, which replaced the burnt forests, provided an essential part of Maori diets in colder regions. Dr Wilmshurst said:
“In their efforts to increase the productivity of lowland forests for food, Maori encouraged a more heterogeneous and economically useful fern-shrubland at the same time as making travel easier to search for food and stone resources for making tools.” (2)Turia, or whoever wrote the article with her name on it, continues to push the myth of caring, peaceful, spiritual people living in harmony with nature while the evidence reveals desperate Stone Age food gatherers pillaging the environment.
I wonder what Tane, the Maori forest god, would have thought about the burnings.
1. Guardianship under threat, Wanganui Chronicle, September 12, 2013. http://www.nzherald.co.nz/wanganui-chronicle/opinion/news/article.cfm?c_id=1503423&objectid=11123348&ref=rss?
2. Early settlers transformed lowland forests with fire, Landcare Research, December 14, 2010. http://www.landcareresearch.co.nz/about/news/media-releases/early-settlers-rapidly-transformed-lowland-forests-with-fire