Pathways to Transition

Nikau Farm’s Journey to Restore Lake Waikare

The whanau of Nikau Estate Farm Trust are determined to breathe new life into Lake Waikare, one of the most polluted lakes in Aotearoa, through exploring land-use change into solar farming, tuna rearing, greenhouses, high-value crops, polyculture, and native vegetation.

A drone photograph of part of Nikau Farm with restoration plantings visible

Lake Waikare is one of the most polluted lakes in Aotearoa, and its catchment highly modified and degraded. Deforestation of the indigenous forest, pastoral farming, production forestry and the flood control scheme established in the 1960s have all contributed to this. Intensive dairy farming nearby has also been a source of nitrogen, phosphorus, and pathogens to the lake, while sheep and beef farming on the hill country contribute to the sediment levels and create further erosion risk.

The Nikau whānau are exploring ways to use the land in a way that protects and enhances the environment from its current state, while also looking to sustain social, cultural, and economic benefits for the whānau, and Aotearoa overall.

Some of the land uses identified were solar farming, tuna, high-value crops, greenhouses, native vegetation, polyculture and agroforestry systems.

The Land-Use Scenarios for Nikau Farm research project was a mana whenua-led, collaborative research initiative guided by tikanga Maaori with transdisciplinary collaborators Nikau Estate Trust Farm, Waikato Tainui, EcoQuest, Waikato Regional Council, and ESR. It weaved together biophysical science and Waikato-Tainui mātauranga tuku iho to inform future land-use decisions.

The aim was to first investigate and understand the current situation at Nikau Estate Trust Farm, and assess the potential environmental impacts and benefits of the land uses the farm had already been engaged in. Recognising the many factors contributing to the state of Lake Waikare, the focus was to conduct this assessment through a Waikato-Tauinui mātauranga viewpoint, supported by evidence from field experts.

They also looked to discuss the merits and pitfalls of the various changes that had been discussed, and options they had not yet considered, in hopes of contributing to land-use decision-making across Aotearoa in a way that protects and enhances the environment.

From the outset there were several different options for change of economic use of the land being considered, however their effect on the mauri of the lake, and potential environmental impacts and benefits were unknown. There were also ideas for change that extended beyond economic use, but the likely effects of these kinds of changes were also uncertain.

Applying te ao Māori frameworks and mātauranga

The whānau used a Waikato-Tainui mātauranga-informed framework to validate the land use options for Nikau Estate Trust Farm and engaged in scoping wānanga to explore science-based evidence, holistic thinking and indigenous worldviews. Working with the science team at ESR and EcoQuest Education Foundation, the social systems team from ESR led a process of systemic inquiry through wānanga. Stories, history, goal exploration, excursions and reviews were all part of the scoping wānanga process.

Māori models for engaging in systems thinking (particularly relevant to Waikato-Tainui) were investigated, and more broadly the application of Māori models to land use. Recognising that the interrelationship of all things through genealogical connection as fundamental in te ao Māori, a methodology inspired by the work of Aareka Hopkins in Classifying the mauri of wai in the Matahuru Awa in North Waikato (New Zealand Journal of Marine and Freshwater Research, 2018) was created to inform the appropriate use of an atua framework in this context.  

Some of the land uses identified were solar farming, tuna, high-value crops, greenhouses, native vegetation, polyculture and agroforestry systems. All of these were explored under the atua framework to identify the potential benefits and impacts on the environment and wildlife.

Three ‘traps' identified

These discussions identified a lack of evidence that changing land-use to another commercial crop or system would change any of the systemic issues identified.

The whānau also discovered through these discussions that the current cropping regime encroaches on the domains of other atua necessary for the maintenance of mauri. A starting point for change would be to address these imbalances between atua relationships and diversify their crops in line with the cultural landscape.

A causal loop diagram was developed to identify systemic barriers and future possibilities. From this, three traps were identified.

  1. The “business-as-usual” (BAU) trap, where current mainstream agricultural practices are financially driven, and harmful to the environment.
  2. Historic and socio-economic influences, where colonisation's impact led to the alienation of indigenous Māori from their land, culture, and traditional practices. This perpetuated historical trauma and injustices, creating systemic issues across the planes – economically, socially and environmentally.
  3. The systemic marginalisation of te ao Māori and Mātauranga Māori where industrialised agricultural practices take precedence over indigenous knowledge and associated wisdom, leading to a misalignment in values and practices.

All three traps relate to economic growth at the expense of te Taiao, and contribute to the current unsustainability of mainstream farming practices in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Recognising the tensions between western and Māori knowledge systems was a crucial part of the critique sessions, and the tensions that arose through differing perspectives highlighted that, while the two knowledge systems are expected to work together, there is a lack of guidance on how to implement this given their fundamental differences.

Aspirations for land-use change

There is considerable interest in solar farming within the Nikau whānau, but meeting the wider aspirations of the whānau may rely on emerging technologies that combine power generation with cropping, in so-called agrivoltaic systems. Such a system would have the potential for a high-value return from a small area, combined with the requirement of a larger labour force and could form the financially productive core of a polycultural, atua-based agroecology at Nikau Farms.

Utilising insights gained through their research, the Nikau whānau identified two aspirations for land-use change at Nikau Estate Trust Farm:

  1. Engaging and enhancing knowledge skills of tamariki and rangatahi relating to sustainable agriculture.
  2. Potential crop types and a shift to grow more diverse traditional crops.

Both aspirations are linked with addressing systemic barriers through enabling cultural, economic and social development for the whānau, and exploring evidence of specific farming practice shifts that align with mātauranga Māori.

The journey for the Nikau Estate Trust Farm will continue to involve collaboration, learning and improvement to transform practices in a way that embeds te ao Māori and mātauranga Māori at all levels.

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Arpége Taratoa

Arpége Taratoa is a freelance writer and editor

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