Deep in New Zealand’s vast Te Urewera forest, which is famously endowed with a legal personality, the Māori community in Ruatāhuna is working to restore and sustain its forests and way of life. Having regained control of their land after decades of logging by outside interests, members of the Tūhoe community are trying to bring back conifers in the Podocarpaceae family, which they refer to as the chiefs of the family of Tāne, the god of forests and birds.
Other initiatives include controlling invasive species, developing a community-based forest monitoring system centered on traditional values and knowledge, establishing a “forest academy” for local youth, and setting up a profitable honey enterprise to provide jobs and eventually fund forest restoration. This is the first part of Mongabay’s three-part profile of the Ruatāhuna community’s effort to restore its ancestral forest.
RUATĀHUNA, New Zealand — It’s early morning in Ruatāhuna, a remote valley deep in the Te Urewera forest on New Zealand’s North Island. Puke Tīmoti and Hemiona Nuku are dragging a deer carcass down a steep hillside, ready to tie onto their horse and take back to Tīmoti’s home on the flatlands below.
High up on the ridgeline, the ubiquitous morning mist slowly clears to reveal slopes of dense temperate rainforest cupping a thin sliver of settlements, marae (Māori meeting grounds) and pasture surrounding the upper reaches of the Whakatāne River. The bush-clad region surrounding this valley is known as the Tuawhenua, and it’s part of the homeland of Tūhoe, an iwi tribe) of the Māori indigenous group. Spanning about 200 square kilometers (77 square miles), the Tuawhenua is a collection of land blocks, each owned by a particular hapū (subtribe). While only around 300 people live in Ruatāhuna these days, there are tens of thousands of Tūhoe scattered around New Zealand and the rest of the world who still call this place home.
Nuku, a tall teenager in a rugby jersey and gumboots, shot the deer the night before and called up his cousin Tīmoti to help him bring it down in the morning. “That’s actually my first time hunting in two years,” he says ruefully. He’s been away from the valley attending secondary school, and he’s got an exam the next day to get back for.
Tīmoti, who’s older and a much more experienced hunter, is clearly in charge of the retrieval operation. As the two men struggle to hoist the deer’s heavy, floppy body across the horse’s broad back, he delivers instructions to Nuku in the local community’s everyday mix of English and te reo Māori, the Māori language.
It’s a scene that has played out in different forms in this place for centuries: older whānau (extended family members) teaching younger ones how to feed themselves and their families in the forest. Tīmoti isn’t blind to its wider significance: he’s a researcher as well as a bushman, who is currently studying for his master’s degree in science at the University of Waikato in the city of Hamilton.
In a recent collaboration between the local Tūhoe Tuawhenua Trust, which manages 25 of the land blocks in the Tuawhenua (amounting to about 45 percent of the total Tuawhenua land) and a quasi-governmental institute called Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research (MWLR), Tīmoti worked with Ruatāhuna elders to develop a community-based monitoring system for forest health centered on local values and knowledge. It’s one of a number of ways that the Trust and the community of Ruatāhuna are working to restore and sustain their forests and way of life.
“Although,” Tīmoti told me earlier with a cheeky grin, “hunting around here, so close to home? That was laughed upon by my elders. It was like you were reaching into the front part of your storehouse. You should be off on your horse for 10 days, traveling right to the back, you know?”
A changing world
The forest those elders traveled through was different, too. For one thing, it was significantly louder: in Tīmoti’s research, interviewees recalled flocks of kererū (a native wood pigeon, Hemiphaga novaeseelandiae) of two or three hundred, which “apparently sounded like a jet plane coming through the forest canopy,” he says with awe in his voice.
These days, a flock of 10 to 20 kererū is considered big. Vulnerable to predation from introduced possums, stoats, rats and cats, the birds are now listed as near threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Their plight has major ecological implications as well as cultural ones, because they’re the only native birds whose beaks open wide enough to eat and disperse the seeds of many indigenous tree species.
The forest’s structure has changed as well. In the past, the canopy was dominated by immense, centuries-old conifers in the Podocarpaceae family, such as rimu (Dacrydium cupressinum), mataī (Prumnopitys taxifolia) and tōtara (Podocarpus totara). Māori refer to these trees as the chiefs of the family of Tāne, the god of forests and birds.
A kererū (native woodpigeon, Hemiphaga novaeseelandiae). The birds are culturally and ecologically important for Tūhoe. Image by Monica Evans for Mongabay.
A kererū (native woodpigeon, Hemiphaga novaeseelandiae). The birds are culturally and ecologically important for Tūhoe. Image by Monica Evans for Mongabay.
But in the 1950s and ’60s, under pressure to create jobs and show the government of the day that they were using their land “productively,” the community allowed timber companies into the Tuawhenua to selectively log the ancient trees.
The results were disastrous, the elders said. The timber companies employed locals only as laborers, not managers, and ignored their intimate knowledge of the forest ecosystem, ordering them over their objections to fell as many podocarps as possible. “They said some were so large that they couldn’t even get them onto the trucks,” says Tīmoti.
After felling the podocarps, the companies ordered locals to go back and fell lots of other tree species, too. “These were trees that didn’t have any real timber value, like toromiro [Prumnopitys ferruginea],” says Tīmoti. “But they’re important trees for us because they feed the birds. So for the elders to be ordered to go back and cut them down … you could just hear in their voices how painful it was for them,” he says, shaking his head.
“It was just awful,” says Brenda Tahi, the Trust’s executive trustee. “They made our people do things that were absolutely against their spirits, and against what they knew should be happening in the bush.”
Having logged about 30 percent of the Tuawhenua forests, including a large proportion of its podocarps, the logging companies left, and the jobs for locals disappeared as quickly as they had come. What’s deeply frustrating to Tahi is that the outcome of that forestry enterprise could have been so different if local Māori had been involved in its management from the get-go.
“We would never have done it in the way they did it,” she says, “so the podocarps would still be there, and we’d probably still be doing forestry — sustainably.”
Instead, they’re now dealing with a forest that’s ecologically out of balance. With so many of the largest trees gone, another native tree, the tawa (Beilschmiedia tawa), has become over-abundant, dominating the forest canopy and shading out podocarp seedlings, preventing them from regenerating. “Nothing grows under tawa but tawa,” says Tahi, so the change has major implications for the ecosystem’s biodiversity.
Resurrecting the chiefs of the forest
Now, with the Trust at the fore, the community is working to restore the presence of their forest chiefs, the podocarps. “From our perspective it’s really important that we have not just diversity, but these particular trees,” says Tahi. “And we want them back.”
From 2009 to 2012, the Trust ran a pilot podocarp restoration program in collaboration with MWLR. Preliminary research had shown that podocarp seedlings planted in the 1970s had hardly grown at all, because they had not been planted in the wells of light cutting through gaps in the canopy, and so had been smothered by kaponga tree ferns (Cyathea dealbata).
So Trust staff and hapū members planted 3,830 new podocarp seedlings in light wells that had been left by fallen trees or created by removing tawa. They also cleared the kaponga from 725 young podocarps. Every few years they’ll need to clear them again to give the seedlings a shot at reaching the canopy before the tawa closes in, Tahi says. So far, survival rates have been high, 80 to 90 percent in partially shaded areas, and much lower, 40 to 60 percent, in more exposed and open areas. Getting the right amount of light in for regeneration is proving a delicate balancing act.
Right now, the major obstacle to managing the forest effectively is funding, says Tahae Doherty, the Trust’s chair and its longest-standing current member. The timescales for podocarp regeneration are huge. Since the pilot project ended in 2012, community members have continued to transplant seedlings into light wells on an informal basis, but to make real impact, they’re going to need a lot more financial support.
One avenue the Trust has pursued extensively is the potential for indigenous forestry: namely, extracting tawa on a larger scale to allow more podocarps to come through into the canopy. They’ve run a number of studies with MWLR to explore the commercial viability of such an enterprise. There were sizeable administrative hoops to jump through, because national forestry legislation is designed to make it very difficult to cut down native trees.
“The Ministry was saying, ‘if you take tawa, then you’ve got to regenerate tawa,’” Tahi says. “And we said, ‘no, we want to take tawa and regenerate podocarp. We want to change the way in which our forest is going.’ And that was a really foreign concept to them.”
To Tahi’s disappointment, the studies all concluded that the market for tawa is not currently big or lucrative enough to make the operation feasible. “But our aim is still to remove some of the tawa from our forest, no matter what,” says Tahi, “so we can get more podocarps in, and more diversity in our bush.”
So in the last few years, the Trust has put much of its energy into developing a commercial honey business, to create more employment and ultimately generate an income that it can re-invest into restoring the forest.
The Trust also ran a successful pest control project from 2014 to 2017, in which staff and hapū members managed to slash pest numbers through intensive trapping on one of the land blocks. This prompted significant regeneration of forest undergrowth and increased birdlife in the area. Richard Tumarae, a hapū elder who lives on the block and helped with the project, reported “much improved vitality” of the bush there. The Trust ran out of funding to maintain the project, but hapū members continue to control pests voluntarily in the area, and the hope is that the Trust can support it again in the future.
However, pest control at wider scales remains controversial. Introduced mammals like brushtail possums (Trichosurus vulpecula), boars (Sus scrofa) and the deer that Nuku shot “have actually become our instruments for going into the forest,” says Tīmoti. “People depend on them for learning about the forests, for feeding their families, and for their identity.”
Last year, the New Zealand government pledged to rid the country of introduced predators by 2050. It’s a noble-sounding goal for sure, but one that needs to take Māori interests into account, says Tīmoti, because at the moment, “these pests are providing an opportunity for our knowledge to be transferred to the next generation.”
The community’s conservation interests diverge from national priorities in other ways, too. For example, the Department of Conservation (DOC) puts a lot of money into protecting kiwis (genus Apteryx), because of how endangered and iconic the birds are at a national level. But for the people of the Tuawhenua, kererū is actually the most valued bird. “So we need to come to a point where we can determine our own priorities as kaitiaki [guardians],” says Tīmoti.
Holding fast to the land
It’s not surprising that autonomy is a priority for the community of Ruatāhuna. The place is known as Te Kohanga o Tūhoe (the cradle or refuge of Tūhoe), as it’s understood to be one of the first places the iwi settled in this region, and it later became a place of refuge from attack by other tribes and the colonial military.
Contemporarily, the Tuawhenua region represents a refuge in another sense, too. It’s surrounded on three sides by the much-bigger Te Urewera protected area, which was just returned to Tūhoe in 2014 after 60 years as a DOC-managed national park. Tūhoe made international news at the time by gaining the right, through their settlement with the government for historical injustice, to grant Te Urewera a legal personality all its own. The move means that the 2,127-square-kilometer (821-square-mile) area now “owns itself,” and can be represented as a rights-holder in court by a of majority Tūhoe and some government representatives. It’s a historic development, though one that many locals say may take time to shake out into tangible progress for the iwi and their land.
So how did the Tuawhenua stay separate from the larger Te Urewera? “Let’s just flip that question around,” says Tahi wryly. “How did all of that end up being a national park, rather than a whole lot of freehold Māori land?”
It’s a better question and a “hell of a story,” she says. Back in 1896, most of the land in Te Urewera was owned and collectively governed by Tūhoe as a Native Reserve, a title they believed would protect their lands from sale.
But in the early 1900s, the New Zealand government undermined the provisions of the Native Reserve title and began aggressively, and sometimes illegally, purchasing land in and around Te Urewera, says Tahi. They also imposed road and survey costs on Tūhoe, demanding more land as payment. In the end, the government ended up owning the majority of Te Urewera, which it later turned into a national park without consulting Tūhoe or giving the iwi any say in its governance.
In the Tuawhenua, Tahi explains, most hapū managed to hold onto their land, partly because of their staunch resistance to selling and partly because the area was not as sought-after by the national government as other places, such as the picturesque Lake Waikaremoana nearby.
However, in the 1970s the government’s lands and survey department, which Tahi says was “quite aggressive in adding to the national parks of New Zealand at the time,” moved to amalgamate the area into the Te Urewera national park.
“And it very nearly happened,” she says. Locals refused the proposition, but later found out that their land had been amalgamated anyway. So they took the claim to court, and after a long legal battle, it was finally revoked in 1984. In 1987, the Trust was formed, says Tahi, to help cement ongoing hapū ownership, and sustainable management, of much of the Tuawhenua’s land.
Money for honey
To maintain autonomy, manage the forest as they see fit, and see the community thrive, it definitely helps to have reliable sources of income and employment. But opportunities for economic development are limited by Ruatāhuna’s isolation. By New Zealand standards, most houses in the area are pretty run-down, education levels are low, and a lot of people are dependent on unemployment benefits. “We’ve got third world statistics within a first world context,” says Tahi. It’s a familiar refrain among Māori, who are overrepresented in unemployment, poverty, poor health outcomes and incarceration rates at the national level.
However, the Trust is determined to change those statistics among its people. It has launched a number of initiatives to nourish the local economy and culture, as well as the ecosystems that sustain them. One of the most successful is Manawa Honey.
Manawa means “heart.” In Māori legend, the North Island of New Zealand is a fish that the hero and trickster Maui pulled up from the ocean, and Ruatāhuna is located at the fish’s heart. The name also represents the care the company puts into its products and its employees, says Tahi.
When the western honey bee (Apis mellifera) was introduced to New Zealand in the 1830s and quickly spread throughout the country, honey became a revered food for the people of Ruatāhuna, and wild honey-gathering from hives high up in trees became a traditional practice in the area.
But the contemporary inspiration for Manawa Honey came when Tahi and her husband, Tāwi Te Kurapa, set up a couple of beehives in their backyard orchard in 2009. Tahi had kept bees before, and Te Kurapa wanted to learn. “So we set them up, and they produced over 100 kilos [220 pounds] of honey each,” she recalls; “it was incredible.”
Both Tahi and Te Kurapa are on the Trust , and as parents, grandparents and great-grandparents of children in the area, they are well aware of the dearth of reliable local work. Possum hunting for the fur market is the main employment option, but it’s seasonal and physically challenging, and not everyone is keen or able to do it. Te Kurapa did it in the past, “but it’s not easy,” he says. “You’ve got to be prepared to stay out in the bush for weeks on end, and the majority of the fullas [people] around here don’t want to do that.”
The Trust ran a feasibility study on commercial honey production, and the numbers looked good enough. “So we thought, nah we’ll go hard, because we’ve got all these kids here with us anyway,” says Tahi. “And we got stuck in.”
The and staff decided not to make the same mistakes as earlier development initiatives like forestry, and committed instead to managing and staffing almost the whole operation internally, in Ruatāhuna.
That meant training people in beekeeping from scratch, setting up an extraction shed, and learning to market the product domestically and internationally. “It wasn’t the easiest way to start off,” acknowledges head beekeeper Nick Mītai, who had no prior experience in the trade before starting with Manawa Honey. “But it’s worked out well, because now we know every step of the business,” he says.
Mītai used to work in forestry, but jumped at the opportunity to shift careers to something local, reliable, and sustainable: “I wanted to do something that was giving back to the environment,” he says, “not just taking away.” While honeybees aren’t native to New Zealand, they play an important pollination role in the forest, as well as pastures, orchards and gardens, especially since birds that once filled that role have declined so significantly in recent years.
The business has also provided a useful opportunity for community members to connect with the forest in new ways as the community evolves, says Tahi. “You go to the bush with what you’re looking for,” she says; “and we’re really good on things like rimu and mataī for forestry, and then we know other ones that are rongoa [medicinal plants], but we didn’t know our honey trees.”
Mītai, for one, now revels in his new knowledge of the forest. “See that tall one, with the red flower?” he asks as we wind up a gravel road in his truck to check on some of his hives. “That’s a rewarewa [Knightia excelsa]: it’s what the bees are on at the moment. It’s the first tree to flower in the season.”
“When I first started,” he says, “I thought it was just like, bees make honey. But the longer you do it, the more complicated it gets! It’s like anything: once you’re in that line of work or interest, it opens up a whole new world. So now I know a whole lot about what’s going to flower when, because the placement of the hives depends on that.”
Manawa Honey is also influencing the Trust’s forest management plan, particularly in terms of which species they prioritize for restoration. “We’re now really interested in tāwari [Ixerba brexioides] and rewarewa, the ones that give us pollen and nectar for our bees,” says Tahi. “So it has changed our thinking in terms of what we value and want to see more of in our forest.”
That includes a newfound love for the scrubby, prickly mānuka (Leptospermum scoparium) tree, which represents one of the first waves of forest regeneration from pasture. The tree used to be seen as a nuisance, as Manawa Honey’s production manager (and Brenda’s son) Jim Tahi explains: “When I was younger, we were always chopping it down and cutting it back. It was just taking up space where we could have had pasture for our horses and other animals.”
But mānuka is a gold mine for beekeepers: the honey’s antibiotic properties have earned it “superfood” status internationally, and it retails for 50 percent more than any of the company’s other honeys. So these days, they try to keep it standing wherever they can.
There’s not a lot of mānuka to be had in this forest, so the business hasn’t been as lucrative as for some other New Zealand honeymakers. But the product has recently made it into a major domestic supermarket chain, and the team is pursuing export options, too.
Manawa Honey now has about 1,000 hives throughout Te Urewera, and employs five beekeepers and six other staff. They’re aiming for 4,000 hives within the next three to five years, which would require about 20 beekeepers: a significant amount of employment for a small place like Ruatāhuna. They’ve also begun investing some of their profits into projects that serve their larger goals for the community and its forest, such as a “forest academy” program for local young people that kicked off in July.
In September this year, the company won a regional award for business excellence, which is proudly displayed on a shelf in the staff room. “People are like, ‘What? Ruatāhuna won a business award?’” laughs Tahi. “It’s just unthinkable: we can win haka [a ceremonial war dance], or singing, but business?”
As someone who always has the bigger picture of community development and sustainability in mind, she’s particularly proud of that achievement. “Our kids will look at that and think: ‘We win haka, and we win business,’” she says. “It opens their minds to possibilities, and that’s really important for us.”
Beekeepers Tāwi Te Kurapa (right) and colleague unload the truck at the end of the day. Image by Monica Evans for Mongabay.
A long and worthwhile road
Tahi says the community’s unique weave of Māori knowledge and other sources of information has been crucial to its achievements so far.
“Our traditions are really important, but they’re not the sole determinant of what we do,” she says. “We believe that we evolve, as our ancestors evolved, so we’ve reached out to Western science as well and learned a lot from that.”
They’re also actively making connections beyond New Zealand’s borders, and have recently been connecting with a network of mountain-dwelling peoples around the globe. Tūhoe are the only truly mountain-dwelling tribe in New Zealand, so “we’re not only isolated as a place, but we also get isolated in our thinking,” says Tahi. “So we’re seeking out examples out there to help us think.”
The key, she says, is to retain control of decision-making so that local priorities are at the fore. This means ensuring locals are involved and employed at every level of any initiative. “We’ve learnt that trusting in ourselves and sticking with our own people is a longer, harder road, but it has so many other spin-offs that it’s worth it,” she says.
“It means that you actually take that traditional knowledge, that integration with the environment, into the development that takes place,” Tahi concludes, as she finishes off a mug of hot lime and honey — the local bush blend, of course. “You don’t get that if you just bring development in and impose it on a people.”