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Tomorrow's World: What we can learn about kauri dieback disease from mātauranga Māori

4 August, 2022

Interview by Isla Christensen, adapted by Jessica Hopkins

Experts are advocating for the use of both western science and mātauranga Māori to help save the forest and inform biosecurity responses. Photo: Canva.

Listen to the full interview 

Since 2006 thousands of kauri (Agatha australis) have died from kauri dieback disease and are now threatened with extinction. 

The human-spread disease is currently considered incurable and is virtually impossible to eradicate once in the soil. 

The disease starves the native tree of nutrients and water and is caused by a microscopic fungus-like organism called Phytophthora agathidicida. 

But spread can be prevented through hygiene protocols for forest visitors and phosphite injections. 

Kauri are one of the largest and longest living trees, growing to over 50 metres tall, 16 metres wide, and living for over 2000 years.

Dr Amanda Black, the co-director at Bioprotection Aotearoa Research Centre and an Associate Professor at Lincoln University, incorporates mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge) within her research, which is focused on finding a solution to kauri dieback. 

"The kauri forests of Aotearoa are some of the most ancient and unique in the world, with deep cultural connection to the Māori people." 

Kauri are taonga (treasured entities) for Māori, who have many historical and cultural connections to their ngahere (forests) and consider the health of the rākau (trees) as a tohu (indicator) of our wellbeing.

In Māori mythology, Kauri is the brother of the Tohorā (Southern right whale, Eubalaena australis). 

The story is what placed the tree and the whale in their environments. 

"The Tohorā asked Kauri to return with him to the sea, but the Kauri preferred the land. Tohorā then suggested they exchange skins, which they did.

This is why the bark of the kauri tree is so thin and as full of resin as the whale is of oil."

Since European settlement, both Kauri and Tohorā have become sought-after commodities, Kauri for his valuable timber and Tohorā for his overabundance of oil. 

At the time, our largest exporters and government proclaimed that logging and whaling were essential for New Zealand's economic survival. 

Kauri forests have been significantly reduced, now covering less than 4% of their original pre-1800s land-range. 

Dr Black told 95bFM's Tomorrow's World that kauri dieback is one of the biggest crises ever to face New Zealand's forests. 

"It threatens not only individual kauri trees but the entire ecosystem around them. If kauri disappear, so do all the other plants and animals that depend on them."

Researcher Dr Nick Waipara (Rongowhakaata and Ngāti Ruapani ki Turanga) has spent more than a decade fighting kauri dieback disease and advocating for the use of both western science and mātauranga Māori to help save the forest and inform biosecurity responses. 

Dr Waipara told Tomorrow's World that everyone can play a part in promoting plant health and preventing disease. 

"For kauri dieback disease, this includes participating in hygiene practices before entering a kauri forest, monitoring kauri on your land and becoming a 'citizen scientist' or adopting some of the indigenous approaches that are underpinned by mātauranga Māori."

Tomorrow's World is a segment on 95bFM's The Wire that explores how science affects people and our future on planet Earth.

Public interest journalism funded through NZ On Air