Cultural context crucial for understanding mahinga kai

A recent online Shed Talk event for farmers and industry representatives in the Hurunui Waiau Uwha zone saw the cultural context of mahinga kai at the forefront to inform future protection actions.  

Shed Talk events are held to help communities connect with their local Environment Canterbury team and show what can be done to protect mahinga kai and biodiversity in the zone.  

Event presenter and Northern Pou Mātai Kō/Cultural Land Management Advisor Makarini Rupene took listeners on a journey through past, present, and future, highlighting the role the environment has played in sustaining life, the changes he and his whānau have observed, and what mahinga kai protection looks like in the Hurunui Waiau Uwha zone.  

Mahinga kai a treasure to protect

Watch our video on mahinga kai practices in North Canterbury

To Māori, mahinga kai is the traditional value of all natural resources and their ecosystems, as well as the practices involved in producing, gathering, and protecting them. 

Makarini’s role at Environment Canterbury is to work with industry, community groups, and landowners, alongside mana whenua, to enhance mahinga kai – help people understand what it is, how to protect it, and how it interacts with the natural environment.  

“We work on projects in rivers, across different catchments and support restoration work – replanting of wetlands and actions to enhance the wairua/soul and mauri/life force of taio/the environment,” Makarini said. 

“All it really boils down to is being able to say we’ve provided a thriving environment for our children – helping them to be able to see native bush full of tūī, drains full of freshwater mussels/kākahi and streams full of tuna/eel – all things we were able to experience as kids. 

“Farmers and landowners are custodians of their land and the resources within them, so it’s important that we do what we can to protect these treasures,” Makarini said.  

“As Māori, we also have a responsibility to help others protect mahinga kai, as our Ngāi Tahu tūpuna/ancestors did before us,” he says.

Te toto o te tangata, he kai; te oranga o te tangata, he whenua - Food supplies the blood of people; their welfare depends on the land. 

Personal experiences help guide mahinga kai protection

Makarini grew up in North Canterbury, spending a lot of time immersed in traditional Māori ways of life with his kaumatua/elders.  

“I learnt at an early age about how my kaumatua remember this world and how to live in a tikanga/customary way. Mahinga kai, traditional food gathering, and manaakitanga – gifting, looking after neighbours and guests - were all key concepts that helped shape the way I see the world today,” Makarini said. 

Makarini collecting watercrest

Makarini collecting watercrest

“Acknowledging this inherent connection to natural worlds, resources, and the importance of protecting them upholds the mana of these places and spaces. It's crucial in understanding mahinga kai,” Makarini said.  

Because mahinga kai refers to numerous things rather than something specific, there is no single list of exactly what is mahinga kai for any given place. It’s whole species, natural habitats, materials or practices used for harvesting food, and places where food and resources can be found or gathered. 

“For example, īnanga/whitebait are an important mahinga kai species valued today by most people, not just Māori. They live and spawn in all sorts of waterways, including farm drains. But their habitat is sensitive to disturbance, particularly from grazing animals and farm operations, which is why we need to take steps to protect the environments that they live in," Makarini said. 

“Fencing off the waterway or adjusting farming practices when spawning occurs in autumn are fairly straightforward things we can do to protect īnanga. There’s something special about providing the best environment for these treasures and watching them do well.  

“These actions are often inherent in the way we farm, they’re not new and many farmers are already taking actions to protect them – ultimately protecting mahinga kai,” he said.  

Mahinga kai and mana whenua 

“Setting the scene and understanding the history, mana and importance of mahinga kai is crucial to understanding what actions we need to take to protect it into the future,” Makarini said.

“In the Māori realm, we look to the creation, where things come from. Those aspects are what helps guide our actions to protect, to respect and to utilise certain resources. They help explain who we are and where we are headed. 

“Our tīpuna/ancestors have been in Te Waipounamu/the South Island for over 1,000 years. My own whakapapa is to Ngāi Tūāhuriri, where those 1,000 years of genealogy guide the traditions, food gathering, and way of life for my whānau and I,” he said. 

“We weren’t just warriors – we were fathers, farmers, fishermen, businesspeople. We’ve been connected to the whenua/land for so long – working with early whalers, sealers and settlers, trading livestock, crops, tools, and food to use and grow.”  

Enhancing understanding of mahinga kai 

“During the 1800’s, we saw a lot more settlers arriving in Aotearoa and the establishment of Te Tiriti o Waitangi/The Treaty of Waitangi,” Makarini said.  

“Article two of Te Tiriti and Kemps Deed specifically noted rangatiratanga/chieftainship would remain under Māori protection for things such as forestries, fisheries, and mahinga kai to ensure a sustainable food source for mana whenua. 

“Alongside this, the provision of hospitals, schools, and the establishment of reserves to allow the continued gathering of mahinga kai.  

“These protections were not upheld which made it difficult for mana whenua to continue their connection with the whenua – to continue to be fathers, farmers, fishermen, and businesspeople,” he said.  

“With the loss of these essential life-giving resources, Māori have struggled to uphold rangatiratanga over our environment, and have been restricted in the ways we carry out, learn, and pass on the traditional ways of Māori, as our Ngāi Tahu tupuna/ancestors did before us. 

“Building mātauranga/knowledge about mahinga kai, its importance and the ways it can be protected is just one way that we can restore the mana of taiao/the environment and continue our traditions – not just for Māori but for everyone.” 

Responsibility to protect mahinga kai 

As Makarini taught his children traditional food gathering methods, working with the seasons and taking only what is needed, he’s noticed changes to those environments with a decline in native species and impacts from particular land use.

Relocating tuna (eel)

Relocating tuna (eel)

“Polluted waterways, taonga/treasured species dying, waterways drying up, nutrients, erosion, smothered shellfish beds from sediment, and braided rivers in flood from climate change,” Makarini said.

“Everyone has a part to play in protecting and enhancing mahinga kai, although as the current guardians of the land, there are clear responsibilities on landowners,” he said.

While the active protection of mahinga kai is a key foundation of the Te Tiriti o Waitangi, it is also part of wider environmental stewardship. Looking after mahinga kai sits alongside ecosystem health and biodiversity as an essential environmental objective. 

“Farmers are now required to achieve a mahinga kai target when implementing regional and national legislation. This means you need to identify and understand mahinga kai values and risks on your farm and respond to these when carrying out good management practice,” Makarini said.

“Community members can attend planting days, form catchment groups, apply for funding for planting, and teach tamariki about native species.

There’s lots of different things you can do to uphold the collective responsibility we have to protect and enhance mahinga kai,” he said. 

Get in touch 

If you’d like to know more about how you can protect and enhance mahinga kai, you can call our customer services team on 0800 324 636 or visit ecan.govt.nz/contact to find out how else to get in touch.  

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