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  • Climate change threatens the loss of culturally significant land, taonga species and resources affecting the perpetuity of mātauranga and tikanga Māori.

    Ka mua, ka muri – walking backwards into the future

    From a te ao Māori perspective, climate change is linked to the past, present and future. Stories passed down through generations describe the relationship with the spiritual realm but also remind us that tūpuna (ancestors) faced similar situations.

    Māori experienced climate change in the great migration from Hawaiki, moving from lower to higher latitudes and warmer to cooler climates – a change that would have required adjustments and the development of new mātauranga and tikanga. Although the change was to a cooler rather than warmer climate, it was a lived experience where challenges were overcome.

    Damage to culturally significant areas

    Climate change is already having an impact on culturally significant areas. For example, increased rainfall has led to increased erosion along Te Wairoa Hōpūpū Hōnengenenge Mātangi Rau River. The Mātiti Urupā (cemetery) is on the banks of the river. Whānau need to move 53 tūpuna from the existing urupā to a safer location.

    Losing taonga species

    There is some early evidence that the warming climate is affecting the ranges of some species. Warmer temperatures are restricting the areas where some species can survive. Many native birds are currently restricted to cooler parts of their former habitats because of increased predators.

    Taonga species including tuna (freshwater eels), kōura (freshwater crayfish) and kākahi (freshwater mussels) are central to the identity and wellbeing of many Māori. For generations, these species have been the source of physical and spiritual sustenance for whānau, hapū and iwi and helped transfer customary practices and knowledge from one generation to the next.

    Changes to seasons and indicators

    Changing seasonality can affect how and when crops are grown and also our native flora and fauna, including the timings and relationships that some mātauranga and in particular maramataka is based on. For example, the flowering of some trees, species migrations or the timing of bird egg-laying can be cued by temperature.

    Te reo Māori

    Climate change may also erode te reo Māori. As te reo Māori is place-based, there are risks to the integrity of te reo Māori me ōna tikanga through sea level rise and the displacement of iwi/hapū in coastal margins to alternative locations, potentially severing the link between iwi/hapū, whenua and taonga.

    Tikanga regarding the gathering of food and other resources is handed down to each new generation. Embedded in these practices are stories and broader environmental management systems unique to the whānau, hapū, iwi and their respective rohe. When species decline, the use of traditional names for valued plant and animal species also declines across each generation. This can lead to a gradual knowledge loss of the origin and purpose of the name. In some cases, the name of the plant or animal provides clues to a whakapapa (connections between and within species) that can also become hidden as the name disappears from the local reo.


    Manaakitanga describes the responsibility of a host to care for whānau and manuhiri through nurturing relationships, and by providing shelter, food, and resources. Manaakitanga relies on being able to access many cultural structures, tools and resources including marae, pā, papa kāinga, business infrastructure and customary resource-gathering areas. Many of these areas are located on or near rivers and the coast – areas that are under threat of increased erosion and flooding from sea level rise as well as more frequent severe weather.

    Related content

    When Māori first settled on the shores of Aotearoa, they had to adapt to a new environment. Read about cultivation techniques developed at Ihumātao and how Māori modified soil to promote kūmara growth.

    Listening to the land is a Connected journal article that tells how mātauranga is being used to understand how climate change is affecting Aotearoa’s wildlife and ecosystems.

    Counting kākahi is a Connected journal article that highlights the value of utilising local mātauranga Māori to help with scientific research.

    Useful link

    Te reo o te repo: The voice of the wetland, published by Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research, provides indepth background information about many of the concepts covered in this article.

    See the 2021 report He huringa āhuarangi, he huringa ao: a changing climate, a changing world from Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga and Manaaki Whenua providing guidance for Te Ao Māori on climate change adaptation and mitigation.


    This resource is based on Our Atmosphere and Climate 2020, produced by the Ministry for the Environment Manatū Mō Te Taiao and Stats NZ Tatauranga Aotearoa.

      Published 15 October 2020, Updated 9 November 2021 Referencing Hub articles
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