Environment Canterbury’s cultural land management adviser Mananui Ramsden helps farmers take Mahinga Kai values into consideration within their farm environment plans. Anne Lee reports.

It was a perfect setting. Tucked away in a pocket of bush with stippled light dancing through the leaves, curious piwakawaka (fantails) flitting from branch to branch, the muffled sound of thundering surf heard in the distance and a cool, fresh stream of spring-fed, clear sparkling water bubbling its way through regenerated natives.

We’d come in buses, along tracks marvelling at the lush growth, learning about technologies aimed at boosting it along even further. Tall flaxes, pittosporums and even kowhai framed the view along the way, but we weren’t travelling in ancient forest.

We had come to the easternmost tip of the 14km-long, 5500-cow Rakaia Island Dairies as part of farm environmental consulting company AgriMagic’s focus day.

Among the speakers that included Environment Canterbury water quality and ecology team leader Graeme Clarke and Okains Bay Seafood founder Greg Summerton, was New Zealand’s first and (so far) only regional council cultural land management adviser, Mananui Ramsden. He’s Tangata Whenua, born and raised at Koukourarata (Port Levy), where Te Reo and Maori Ti Kanga were major foundations through his childhood as they are today.

‘It’s a conversation and a way to help build farmers’ knowledge so they can say within their farm environment plan how what they’re doing supports Mahinga Kai and what they’d like to do in the future.’

The 30-year old spent his formative working years in the construction and mining industries both in New Zealand and offshore, starting as an apprentice builder, qualifying and then progressing to foreman and project management roles.

“I don’t come from the academic and planning side – my perspective is more from a practical and operational point of view,” he says.

His work experience combined with the fact his roots are deeply embedded in the whenua mean he’s quickly been able to cross any divide of scepticism or fear when it comes to helping farmers navigate consenting processes and requirements to consider Maori cultural values.

Canterbury regional council, Environment Canterbury requires almost all farmers to have a consent to farm and the Selwyn/Te Waihora zone, which takes in the lake Te Waihora/Lake Ellesmere, has led the process. As part of their consents farmers are asked to take Mahinga Kai values into consideration within their farm environment plans and in many cases consult with Rununga if they are in areas defined as having cultural significance or have what’s known as silent files noted on planning maps of their property.

For many farmers they’re left scratching their heads over how to consult and for some the very idea sets them bristling. They’re already feeling bashed and bruised, particularly after last year’s election campaign, but that’s where Mananui steps forward – not to dictate, chastise or threaten but to offer a hand and work as liaison.

He’s able to act on behalf of the six Rununga in the Selwyn district which have strong links with the lake and can help farmers with the consultation process.

“We Maori, we know what it’s like to be targeted, to be marginalised and believe me that’s not where this is coming from,” he says.

That’s not to say he doesn’t feel the weight, sadness and even flash of anger at past grievances but he chooses to “park them”.

“I acknowledge that, I’m aware of that and I’m respectful of that – my elders remind me of it. So, while I have an understanding of it, I park it and look to educating, sharing and working alongside people so we can collectively go forward.”

The first step in moving forward is helping farmers understand the meaning of Mahinga Kai and through that understanding come to the realisation that the values around it are the similar to those they have as a farmer.

“At its very narrowest meaning there are two words Mahi (work) and Kai (food), so working for food. Some say Mahinga Kai is essential for survival, but I go further and say it’s about thriving.”

Enhancing Mahinga Kai values encompasses supporting all the natural resources that make a traditional lifestyle possible – whether they be in the waterways – fish and tuna (eels) for example, growing alongside the waterway –flaxes for weaving into baskets and clothing, or flying – native birds.

“Having those resources in a healthy sustainable state is what allowed us to survive and thrive through the seasons, on the migrations my ancestors made annually from Koukourarata to the lake, down Kaitorete Spit to Taumutu and then up the braided rivers, which were their highways to the high country and over to the West Coast.”

Sustaining natural resources as part of Mahinga Kai is also at the heart of another cultural value familiar to farming communities and Maori alike – Manaakitanga (hospitality and generosity).

“I know from my rugby playing days that the best places to play were the country clubs – you’d be welcomed into the clubrooms, have a big meal, have speeches and get to know the guys you played against a bit better.

“It’s a great feeling and brings a sense of pride and togetherness.

“Well it’s the same for Maori – there’s a lot of Mana in being able to welcome visitors and family into your world, your home and give them hospitality, to feed them and make them feel comfortable.

“If you’re unable to do that because the resource isn’t there, well some of your Mana is lost.”

When farmers protect and enhance the environment they too feel a sense of pride.

“I see it all the time – there’s a feel-good aspect to it.”

Mananui says he can come onfarm and impart some of the knowledge he’s gained from his elders about what grows well, what plants and wildlife were in the area and talk through how farmers might practically protect and enhance animal and plant species that support Mahinga Kai and Manaaki.

“It’s a conversation and a way to help build farmers’ knowledge so they can say within their farm environment plan how what they’re doing supports Mahinga Kai and what they’d like to do in the future.

“Fencing drains, planting them, protecting spawning grounds, fencing off an unproductive boggy area – they’re all things they may very well be doing or planning for already but when we they hear more about our reasons why – well that gives them this extra layer of understanding.”

Silent files

Silent files on planning maps indicate sites of specific importance to Maori. They may include Wahi Tapu – sacred sites or treasured sites – but in many cases the details of what’s on a specific site within a farm won’t be publicly available.

That’s because in the past, identification has led to some sites being desecrated and even ancestors’ bones being stolen.

“I work with our Kaumatua and people with detailed knowledge of those sites and one-on-one can talk with farmers about what’s on their land.

“It’s not something to be afraid of – no one’s going to come and take that piece of land – it’s about helping you learn more about your land, helping you understand more about it.”

In most cases farmers are fascinated by the historical information and feel their connection with the land is enriched.

It can mean modifying some farming practices such as not spreading effluent on known burial sites and Mananui says he works carefully with farmers to practically modify farm management.

  • Check out his work on youtube.com