Much of our understanding of wetland health and function comes from scientific-based monitoring and methodologies. However, there is a wealth of knowledge to be gained from Māori-value based assessment methods for monitoring wetlands in New Zealand. I used the Wetland Cultural Health Index (WCHI) and a variety of scientific wetland survey methods to examine how these two approaches complement each other. For this research, I worked with the people from Mōtakotako marae at the Toreparu wetland (Waikato), developing a set of site specific cultural indicators.
Comparative analysis revealed a range of similarities and differences between the WCHI indices and scientific parameters. We found that as Wetland Cultural Health Measure (WCHM) scores increased, there was also an increase in dissolved oxygen concentration, SQMCI-sb values, and total nitrogen concentrations. Cultural indices provided an overall indication of site health. It was apparent, however, that scores of contributing indicators could vary markedly at any one site. As such, high scores for some indicators (e.g., vegetation values) may obscure low values for other variables (e.g., water quality), providing an index that depicts site health as being of average condition.
Capacity and resourcing issues were also highlighted as being an issue for Māori to be able to successfully carry out wetland monitoring, but also for staff in councils and other research and environmental governing bodies to build and maintain relationships with tangata whenua. Other challenges around site access provided a unique opportunity to develop and trial new WCHI assessment techniques. The use of video assessment to carry out WCHI monitoring was of varying success. Indicators that could be scored by visual assessment were useful, but indicators that relied on sound or felt sensation were difficult to assess. The use of mauri (life force) as an indicator had benefits when applied to the whole catchment, but the volunteer participants challenged its validity when used at the smaller site scale. Volunteers found assigning a numerical value to mauri very difficult, and felt that reducing mauri to a single number may diminish the significance of this holistic and metaphysical concept. Mauri has been used successfully as a measure of environmental health but it is important to communicate and understand what mauri is and why it is measured.
Overall, the WCHI provided a wealth of information that could not be captured through scientific sampling, such as the presence of dye source, loss of bird/fish species and baseline information on the past condition of the Toreparu before the surrounding land was converted for agricultural use. This confirms that our understanding of wetland health is enhanced through the inclusion of cultural values.
As the New Zealand government and Māori move towards a future of collaborative research and management of freshwater ecosystems, there is a need for greater understanding around cultural values and priorities. By using both scientific and Māori-value based wetland monitoring methods, Māori can articulate a range of values, goals and priorities to help inform environmental decision makers and empower iwi and hapū to have a meaningful and sustainable role in the management of wetlands. There needs to be a foundation of mutual understanding and relationships built between environmental governing bodies and Māori for the future success of collaborative research and management of New Zealand's wetlands.