The Ngāti Tuwharetoa ki Kawerau iwi places great significance on Te Kete Poutama, an area that encompasses Lake Rotoitipaku near Kawerau, because it has been integral to their economic, cultural, spiritual and social wellbeing for generations. Tasman Pulp and Paper, now Norske Skog Tasman Ltd., leased the area for dumping waste in 1971 and it became the primary disposal site for solid paper-mill waste. Now Lake Rotoitipaku no longer exists – it’s filled with more than 600,000m3 of toxic material. In 2013 the dumping will stop and the land will return to its trustees.

Norske commissioned environmental assessments to determine the magnitude of contamination, the potential environmental hazards and possible restoration options. These reports provided technical information, but missed the trustees’ major issue of how to restore the mauri to Te Kete Poutama. The trustees approached Dr Daniel Hikuroa to work with them to better understand the science and integrate it with mātauranga (Māori knowledge), in the hope that it would reveal a pathway to restore the area’s mauri. Mauri is a universal concept in Māori thinking; it is the physical life principle; ability for air, water or soil to sustain life; the force that penetrates all things to bind and knit them together.

This project takes a different approach to conventional research – rather than Dan imposing himself because he wanted to carry out research on the waste site; he was invited by the trustees to work with them to help resolve the issues arising from the dumping of the waste.

The objective of this project was to provide the trustees with a pathway for restoring the mauri to Te Kete Poutama. In order to do this they needed to follow a methodology that adhered to kaitiakitanga (guardianship) principles, was inclusive of mātauranga and could translate the scientific terminology of the reports into a language understood by the trustees. Once the latter had been achieved the trustees could then consider it in a mātauranga context. Therefore Dan and his team took a kaupapa Māori methodology approach which included presenting a summary of the environmental reports in a series of wananga to the trustees and undertaking a Mauri Model assessment of the site. The model is a decision-making framework based around kaitiakitanga principles and assesses the impact on four wellbeings: environmental, social, economic and cultural. A key outcome of the integration process was determining impact upon mauri of certain contaminants, irrelevant of concentration. Industrially derived contaminants (e.g. dioxins) negatively impact mauri, whereas naturally occurring toxins (e.g. boron and arsenic) have no impact on mauri.

The trustees worked through the Mauri Model process to identify how the mauri has been impacted, and in so doing, have created a blueprint for achieving their goal of restoring the mauri. The next phase of the project will be to determine restoration options and costings. This project is an example that other communities can follow: it successfully implemented mātauranga Māori in a scientific paradigm and the combined contributions of two knowledge systems provided integrated decision making that can enhance sustainability practices for future generations and reach solutions that neither of the bodies of knowledge could reach in isolation.

Project commenced: