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'Old ways' key to sustainable future for indigenous people

Every summer a young Eddie Berryman would follow his father into the bush at Te Kauri, west of Huntly, and watch him clean out the whānau's puna.

Eddie Berryman surveys a partly restored puna at Te Kauri, west of Huntly

In the winter months, the puna (spring) would become overgrown and choked with debris.

Restoring it involved emptying it of water, shaping its clay banks, and digging a path for the runoff.

Puna were once a life saver during the dry summer months, Eddie Berryman says.

The puna would then fill with fresh water over two or three days, Berryman says.

"Our puna was our lifesaver once our home ran out of water in the summer," the 64-year-old recalls."


Ora Barlow-Tukaki says efforts to protect the environment must involve young people.

"Back then you didn't have the fire brigade to bring you water, not that there was money around anyway. And there was no bottled water."

In the intervening decades, the dozen or so puna near Berryman's home faded from memory as the surrounding native bush was cleared for farming and households turned to using bore water.

Inspired by his childhood memories, Berryman started work in 2016 to restore the springs. Each site was cleared of weeds, fenced off, and its surrounds replanted with natives such as mānuka and flax.


Cherokee Nation academic Jeff Corntassel is inspired by environmental initiatives happening on New Zealand's East Cape.

In a physical sense, a puna is a spring of water, but it's also regarded as a life source, Berryman explains.

"After we dug out one puna we went back two or three days later and there was an eel in it. I was like, 'Woah, our guardian is back'. For me that was recognition that I was on the right track."

To date, Berryman has partly restored three puna, using a mix of his own money and funding from the Waikato River Authority.


Seen in isolation, the environmental work by Berryman and others might be regarded as small-scale, especially when talk of habitation loss and climate change is described as a global crisis.

Yet indigenous peoples worldwide are reviving age-old traditions and knowledge to mitigate harm to the environment and restore native fauna and flora.

And it's Māori-led initiatives which are serving to inspire many indigenous communities.


Australian lawyer Dr Virginia Marshall says Western discussions around water rights typically overlook the sacred nature of water.

In late June, more than 1700 academics, experts, and students from around the globe converged on Waikato University for the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA) conference.

Among the topics covered at the four-day conference were indigenous peoples' responses to climate change and initiatives to protect the environment.

Ora Barlow-Tukaki, of the Toitoi Manawa Trust, spoke at the NAISA conference and says indigenous communities are "holding the line" in efforts to safeguard the natural world.


Saami academic May-Britt Ohman says efforts to address climate change have to give regard to indigenous cultures.

In 2010, Brazilian oil giant Petrobras​ was awarded a five-year permit to explore the Raukumara Basin off East Cape for oil and gas. The move triggered marches and maritime protests led by the people of Ngāti Porou.

Petrobras' announcement came only 42 days after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Faced with determined opposition, it eventually withdrew from New Zealand in December 2012.


Saami reindeer herder Anna Kajsa Aira has witnessed the impact climate change is having on her homeland in north Sweden.

"They [Petrobras] started to talk about economic feasibility and all that sort of stuff, but we as indigenous people fought that and we made a difference," Barlow-Tukaki says.

After Petrobras' departure, the Toitoi Manawa Trust held environmental workshops and festivals with the aim of engaging young people.

In 2018, the trust held an indigenous climate action summit called Red Tide, with attendees drawn from the Pacific Islands, South America, South Africa, Europe and Australia.


Eddie Berryman hopes restored puna could one day attract tourism to Te Kauri.

Barlow-Tukaki says Red Tide marked the beginning of a clear strategy: building large-scale relationships.

"Indigenous communities are trying to hold it [climate breakdown] back but we can't do it by ourselves. We have to do it together."

Cherokee academic Jeff Corntassel​ says the work of Barlow-Tukaki and others is an inspiration to other indigenous cultures, having proved effective in engaging young people with environmental issues.

The Cherokee Nation plans to hold its own Red Tide summit in June 2020.

In an initiative with parallels to the restoration of puna in Waikato, members of the Cherokee Nation are currently working to restore stands of river cane.

The plant, known as i-hi to Cherokee, is effective at reducing nitrogen and phosphorus leaching into waterways and slows riverbank erosion.

In recent decades, the species has been decimated by farming practices, pesticides, and climate change.

Corntassel says the loss of i-hi has been linked to the extinction of a bird species but has also had a profound impact on the Cherokee people.

The bamboo-like plant is traditionally used for house construction, pipe stems, chairs and basket weaving.

Today, in a nation of 350,000 people, Corntassel estimates only two or three people make river cane baskets.

In response, last year, the Cherokee planted 1000 i-hi and organised workshops to teach people how to cure and weaving the cane.

Restoring river cane is an attempt to protect the environment, says Corntassel but it's also much more than that.

"I-hi is something that is vital to the Cherokee nation in terms of our health and wellbeing," he says.

On the East Cape, environmental and indigenous rights advocate Tina Ngata has been involved in efforts to protect the Waiapu River.

The work has included weekly environmental monitoring of different sites along the river. An important aspect of the work has been holistic indigenous assessments.

"Which is everything from the sky, the moon phases ... what we can smell, what we can feel on our skin, what we can hear," Ngata says.

Making a hands-on connection to the river and its surrounds helps people make sense of climate shifts, she says.

"Reconnecting viscerally and physically, making sense of it and making it relevant ... finally we get to the point where the hapū are like, 'Yeah, we've got to do something about this climate stuff'."

A key tool in restoring the native habitat on the East Cape has been old survey maps. The maps note the original ancestral names of places which often reference the native species found at those sites.

Ngata says the maps serve as a blueprint of how to restore the land.

"The goal for us is to get to a space of abundance and provision for our people across many different realms - spiritually and physically."

According to the teaching and advocacy resource Environmental Justice Atlas, there are more than 2500 conflicts over resources worldwide. Sixty per cent of conflicts involve indigenous peoples.

Australia lawyer Dr Virginia Marshall's professional career has focused on water rights.

She argues the traditional Western view of water is focused on water allocation and entitlement and ignores the notion held by indigenous peoples that water is sacred.

During numerous trips to New Zealand, Marshall says she's been impressed by the ability of Māori to plan ahead when addressing environmental issues.

"But all of us too have to plan ahead ... because water is now becoming something like gold. And I believe we will be on our knees as a global nation because there will be far less water," she says.

Academic May-Britt Ohman was among a Saami delegation attending the NAISA conference and is encouraged by Māori in their efforts to be seen and gain influence.

The Saami people inhabit Sapmi​, also known as Lapland, which includes northern areas of Sweden, Norway, Finland and northwestern Russia.

Here, the people have witnessed dramatic changes to the climate. In Sweden, the summer of 2018 was the warmest since temperature records started in 1881. It was also one of the driest, leading to scores of wild fires.

Anna Kajsa Aira, a Saami reindeer herder, says recent fluctuations in winter temperatures have had a major impact on her homeland.

Aira, who also teaches Saami language and culture, lives in Jokkmokk, in Swedish Sapmi, where winter temperatures typically drop to -30 degrees Celsius. But unseasonal warm winter days cause the snow to melt, turning it to ice. The ice covers the ground, preventing reindeer from grazing on the vegetation.

The herders have taken to feeding the reindeer hay from December to April in order to keep them alive.

"With the climate changing, we can't control that and we feel very small," Aira says.

Ohman says Sweden promotes itself as an environmental leader but has consistently denied the Saami people a voice when it comes to developments such as mining and forestry in their territory. Some industrialists refer to north Sweden as the Nordic treasure chest.

"I think going back to our indigenous cultures' way of life and respect for non-humans - water and land - is the way to go," Ohman says.

"If Saami could be stronger in promoting our view on how to relate to lands and water, there would be a possibility for a change to the better also in Saami territories. I think we have a lot to learn from Māori in this, and to be inspired to claim our space and rights."

"Obviously the Western way of livelihood is not working. It is time to listen to indigenous cultures."

Some indigenous rights advocates, such as Ngata, describe the unfolding climate crisis as a product of colonialism or imperialism.

Ohman says such talk risks turning some people off environmental discussions.

"I suggest we end the stupidity because colonialism has brought stupidity. We have an ancient way of understanding and living with nature. We have to teach the good practices that work."

At Te Kauri, Eddie Berryman and his wife Te Aira talk about plans to restore more puna in the area.

Eddie says the puna could eventually become a tourist attraction, providing jobs for locals.

"The water that comes out of the puna is pure but it gets contaminated by the farmland, that's why you've got to fence it and protect it. People talk about cleaning up the [Waikato] River but you have to start at the beginning. Clean puna, clean river."

He estimates it will take four or five years for the native plants around the restored springs to become established.

There's even talk of developing an app so people can learn about the history and stories attached to each puna.

Te Aira says a lot of young people have become disconnected from nature and need to relearn the skills and old ways practised by past generations.

"Restoring the puna shows people how it was. In the future, there will be pressure to build more houses ... but by fencing off the puna we're protecting them and making sure nature will always be part of our environment."
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