My Environment: Māori youth activist Te Aomihia Walker

Te Aomihia Walker is a Māori youth activist, marine biologist, fisheries advisor, Sue Taei Ocean Fellow and Arctic Angel. Her community in Aotearoa was one of the hardest hit during the severe tropical Cyclone Gabrielle in February

Te Aomihia Walker comes from the Māori Indigenous tribe of Ngāti Porou on North Island’s east coast. She lives in the coastal city of Tūranga-nui-a-Kiwa (Gisborne).

New Zealand has some 90,000 Ngāti Porou people, 17 per cent living within the tribal region that Cyclone Gabrielle ripped through in February. Ngāti Porou communities endured more than a year of storms and floods before Cyclone Gabrielle hit.

Cyclone Gabrielle is the costliest tropical cyclone recorded in the southern hemisphere and the deadliest to hit Aotearoa since 1968. Quarter of a million homes lost power. The storm cut supplies of water, wastewater and power to families and businesses across North Island for several days. Some 10,000 people were displaced. Total damage is estimated at US$8.4 billion, with just US$730 million insured.

Walker spoke to The Environment two weeks after the storm.

Te Aomihia, how are you?

We’re slowly moving into the recovery phase. Tens of thousands of people were displaced. Flooding trapped people on their roofs. We had landslides that destroyed homes, highways and infrastructure, that left communities unreachable. The floodwater carried mud, trees, debris and waste. Communications were cut off, in my town for about a week.

New Zealand declared a national emergency for just the third time in its history, because of the scale of the damage from Gabrielle. Some areas had more than 65 tonnes of rain in six hours.

My people in the rural areas have been hit by eight events this last year, with power outages across the region – eight supposed once-in-a-century events. Our built infrastructure can’t cope with these kinds of extreme weather events. It’s been disastrous. My community and the wider region expect the intergenerational, cultural, social, environmental and economic impacts from this to last for decades.

How is this affecting Māori people?

New Zealand’s media and the general population focus on impacts on infrastructure and industry. But for Māori communities, this also impacts our physical and spiritual wellbeing. These are our ancestral lands and waters – our sacred sites, cemeteries and community areas that support our cultural practices.

Along the east coast, many culturally significant sites are in exposed, erosion-prone, low-lying coastal areas or river valleys. Many Māori settlements on vulnerable, deforested land are facing one-in-100-year storms every six months. That’s forcing us to have serious conversations about relocating from land and water we have occupied and looked after for centuries.

This will impact us physically and ecologically; we have whakapapa, ancestral ties, to these places. Māori face further economic, social and health disparities in Aotearoa New Zealand as a result of colonialism, Treaty breaches, and dispossession of land. Climate impacts are widening the gap, putting pressure on iwi and hapu – Māori tribes and sub-tribes – to identify and address the greatest threats we face.

Tell us about yourself

My tribe is descended from the Polynesian demi-god Māui – who you’ll know from the film Moana – renowned for voyaging down to the South Pacific and fishing up the North Island. Our ancestral bond to these lands and oceans is inherent to our identity – climate change is putting that relationship at risk.

My parents instilled in me strong Māori cultural values. Their generation fought hard to teach the Māori language in schools; to recognise our rights as Indigenous peoples and tribes in New Zealand’s legal system.

Although I was born in the city, we kept strong ties to the coast and moved back here when I was eight. Knowing we are ocean people inspired me to major in marine biology and statistics.

This spring I launched my own environmental consultancy. Before, I was a fisheries-policy analyst at Te Ohu Kaimoana, established from a 1992 settlement, which protects and enhances Māori customary fishing rights across the country.

I’ve attended fisheries meetings across the western and central Pacific. In 2021, I landed a fellowship with Conservation International, created to support young, Indigenous women of the Pacific. I was the first Fellow from Aotearoa and Indigenous person to join the UNESCO GRO- Fisheries Training Programme in Iceland for six months.

Conservation International helped me to join a panel at the October 2021 Arctic Circle conference, looking at how Indigenous knowledge can tackle climate change. That’s how I became an Arctic Angel. I highlight the interconnectedness between what’s happening here in my home and melting ice sheets in the Arctic and Antarctica

Are you an environmentalist?

Our connectedness is part of our world view – like many other Indigenous peoples, we see the environment as our ancestor. Our responsibilities to look after the environment position us being lesser than nature. All our cultural beliefs, values and practices are tied up in that.

Our identity as Māori rests on that relationship. We are kaitiaki, guardians, who must care for and protect the mauri, life force, of our environment and use resources sustainably for current and future generations, within a strict, culturally principled framework.

Only a third of people of the tribe of Ngāti Porou still live in the region we’re from. But we are coastal people; the ocean formed a huge part of our livelihoods. Even today, we maintain that interrelationship; fishing, diving, voyaging, swimming, surfing and paddling. We practice customary management measures such as rāhui, to temporarily close areas to let fish stocks recover.

What small choices do you make to live more sustainably?

That question changes the discourse from holding to account the biggest polluters. It reduces climate change to individual responsibility. It risks shaming people who may not have the resources, access or privileges to live greener and more sustainability.

But I do my best. I live every day, trying to make constant, conscious choices about how I live. I follow the Māori lunar calendar to understand the best times to sow, harvest or conserve energy . We take only what we need to feed ourselves. I do my best to buy more sustainable products and avoid plastics.

But I’m also very conscious that choice is a privilege that so many people do not have. Since the cyclone, so many people are struggling to survive, to navigate what sustainability looks like in a world of climate impacts.

Scaling up, what changes do you want to see from government and business?

We need a systematic transformation to value reciprocity between the environment and people. We need to shift from colonial paradigms that see land and water as resources to capitalise on, to take collective responsibility and sustainably manage and regulate our interactions with the environment. We must put the health of the taiao, environment, and people first.

Making that shift demands action and long-term commitments that conflict with political systems and bureaucracy reluctant to put a healthy environment before economic development.

What happens next?

We’re packing food parcels for people left with nothing. I’ve pulled on my gumboots to help families to dig out the silt that’s infiltrated homes and marae, our Māori meeting houses. The silt has been a nightmare. It hardens so that you can’t remove it. But as soon as more water comes, it dissolves and moves into new crevices. The immediate response is just to help families and indigenous communities who’ve lost everything.

Once we start to recover, we must consider how to address the longer-term impacts of climate change. We have to hope that this cyclone has been the shock the government needs. New Zealand is reforming its Resource-Management Act, splitting it into three new acts. One will be a climate-adaptation act. So there’s a huge opportunity now, with the storm hitting during the consultation stage, to push decision making to act faster.

This story was first published in The Environment magazine in June 2023

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