Wetlands once occupied nearly 10% of Aotearoa’s land cover. In the last 150 years, 90% of these wetlands have been drained or degraded. Fortunately, our society now has a better understanding of the cultural values and ecosystem services wetlands provide. There are local and national initiatives to protect existing wetlands and return degraded wetlands back to the healthy, thriving ecosystems they once were.
Restoring the future by reconstructing the past
There’s a good deal of groundwork that needs to happen before a restoration project begins. This isn’t the kind of groundwork that involves a spade. It’s about finding out what existed before – the ecological whakapapa of the wetland system – and exploring the significance and value of an area to mana whenua.
Restoration is not only about the physical replanting. It is also about healing.
Ka ora te whenua, ka ora te tangata.Kīngi Tāwhiao Te Wherowhero
If you heal the land, you heal the people.
Establishing a relationship with hau kāinga/mana whenua is an important step when embarking on a restoration project of any ecosystem. Whānau, hapū and iwi share a deep connection with their local repo (wetland), roto or hāpua. For many, the wellbeing of the wetland is intertwined with the wellbeing of the people. Speaking with local kaumātua, grandparents, elderly neighbours and others about their memories of a wetland system may provide helpful knowledge about plant and animal species that once occupied the area.
It may take time to build these relationships, but they are worthwhile. Mana whenua have monitored their local environments for a long time – sometimes for centuries. This in-depth knowledge – mātauranga Māori – holds valuable information.
Oral histories, old maps, survey records, aerial photographs and reports also provide information about wetland locations and the plant and animal species they once supported.
Key features of a wetland restoration site
Before beginning a restoration project, it’s also important to observe the features of the wetland area:
- Type of wetland – bog, fen, swamp, marsh or estuarine.
- Vegetation – dominant vegetation types including trees, sedges, rushes, mosses, rare species and weed infestations.
- Animals (insects, fish and birds) – what lives there now (including pest species), what used to live there.
- Water – inflows and outflows, water levels and modifications such as drains, culverts or stopbanks.
- Soil type – the underlying substrate – peat, mineral or a combination of both.
- Created features – buildings, fences, bridges or similar.
- Cultural sites located within or near the wetland.
With this information in hand, the next step in the restoration process is to set goals and consider the activities needed to meet the goals. Restoration is a long-term process. An ongoing monitoring programme will show changes over time and assess the effectiveness of the project. There are established monitoring and assessment tools available – see the useful links section at the end of this article.
Restoring mauri, taonga and tikanga
For Māori, wetlands are more than ecological systems – they are taonga. Repo have historical, cultural, economic and spiritual significance. They can be reservoirs for knowledge, wellbeing, and utilisation. Repo provide habitats and breeding grounds for taonga plants and animals, they are sources of mahinga kai and they supply materials for weaving, carving and rongoā.
Restoring the mauri (life force) of the repo enhances tikanga and te reo Māori and strengthens the rangatiratanga of mana whenua.
Combined approaches to restoring repo
Māori are increasingly interested to work alongside kairangahau (researchers) and scientists in joint approaches to wetland restoration. Mātauranga Māori and whakapapa concepts add depth of understanding to ecological issues. Kairangahau and scientists bring additional skills and knowledge to restoration projects, such as technical expertise. When these knowledge systems come together, they can create innovative approaches toward the restoration of these precious ecosystems.
Nature of science
In Aotearoa, our thinking about decision making has seen major shifts in recent times. We’re increasingly recognising that cultural and environmental considerations play an important part in how we look after and use the land and the sea.
Working together to restore the Ōngātoro/Maketū Estuary is an example of how mātauranga Māori, marine science and engineering knowledge were used to successfully restore an estuarine wetland.
Find out what lives in wetlands:
Cheri van Schravendijk-Goodman discusses repo from both te ao Māori and ecological perspectives in these videos.
Ngāti Hauā Mahi Trust is involved in restoration projects that contribute to health of the whenua and the community.
New Zealand Landcare Trust has lots of resources in their wetlands section on their website.
Wetland Restoration: A handbook for New Zealand freshwater systems provides an ecosystem approach toward understanding, protecting and restoring our remaining wetlands.
Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research has published several resources with te ao Māori approaches:
- Te Reo o Te Repo – The Voice of the Wetland – handbook
- Māori values and wetland enhancement – poster
- Māori environmental monitoring: processes and indicators – poster
- Taonga classifications and species – poster
Pūniu River Care uses a te ao Māori approach to restoration.
Thank you to the editors and contributors of Te Reo o Te Repo – The Voice of the Wetland for permission and support to adapt this publication, and funding from Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research and MBIE’s Unlocking Curious Minds initiative.