Mahinga Kai

Mahinga kai/mahika kai is a highly significant concept for Maori, literally meaning “to work the food” and relating to the traditional value of food resources and their ecosystems, as well as the practices involved in producing, procuring, and protecting these resources.

  • Recently, proposals have been made to allow Maori to resume traditional harvesting practices (mahinga kai) on conservation land, which has caused a rift in opinions between conservationists and proponents of mahinga kai.
  • The question at hand is what impact this may have on native species in Aotearoa (New Zealand) and how to balance preservation and protection with the principles of Te Tiriti o Waitangi, which guarantees Maori authority over natural resources.

Te Tiriti o Waitangi and Conservation Laws

  • Article Two of Te Tiriti o Waitangi guaranteed Maori authority over natural resources. However, with government-administered and legally enforced ‘no take’ policies covering most conservation land and native species, many Maori feel alienated from their traditional lands and practices.
  • In 2022, the Department of Conservation released a report calling for an overhaul of Aotearoa’s conservation laws to have Maori at their heart, moving away from ‘preservation and protection’ to ‘maintenance, enhancement and sustainable use’, though the report received a lukewarm reception from the government.

Sustainable Harvesting

  • There are precedents for indigenous peoples legally practicing traditional harvesting of some protected species. Customary management areas in Aotearoa, such as mataitai reserves and taiapure, demonstrate that community and Indigenous leadership can be effective at managing resources.
  • However, to ensure any harvesting is sustainable in this fast-changing world, matauranga (knowledge) and tikanga (custom) Maori, developed over centuries, must be combined with scientific methods and data to make robust and evidence-based decisions about harvest practices.

Learn from the Past

  • Palaeo-ecology, archaeology, and matauranga Maori share the philosophy that we can learn from the past. By understanding how past ecosystems functioned, how people and species adapted to harvest pressures and climate change, and how we can use this information moving forward, we can make more informed decisions about harvest practices. Radiocarbon-dating, stable dietary isotopes, ancient DNA, and statistical modelling can help determine how past ecosystems responded to human impacts and predict how future impacts may affect species and populations.

Globally, waves of human settlement have generally correlated with the rapid extinction of local species. However, matauranga and tikanga Maori, combined with scientific methods and data, can provide a powerful base from which managers can make robust and evidence-based decisions about harvest practices that are sustainable for native species in Aotearoa. The key is to learn from the past to make informed decisions for the future, and to balance the principles of Te Tiriti o Waitangi with the need for preservation and protection of native species.

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