Integrated Catchment Management

Maori and ICM - Aotearoa

Maori (indigenous groups) are an essential part of Integrated Catchment Management (ICM) in New Zealand. The ICM project is working closely with local Maori (tangata whenua) and associated groups, to learn how to make biophysical research more responsive to Maori needs, and for researchers to better understand Maori values and issues. We are developing an environment for social and cultural learning, collaborative research, and partnerships. Our ultimate goal is to improve decision making for the sustainable management of natural resources in catchments.


People from northern Polynesia migrated to Aotearoa - New Zealand about 1000 years ago, bringing with them their cultural beliefs, customs, language and philosophies. The Maori culture developed through an interdependency and close relationship with the New Zealand biophysical environment and landscape. At present, indigenous Maori make up around 15% of the total population of 4 million in a largely homogeneous multicultural society. This society is very different from when Europeans first colonised New Zealand in the early 19th century, when there were two distinct and separate cultures, one Maori, one English.

Traditional beliefs, values, and cultural perspectives still resonate strongly in this contemporary world, and have taken on new importance in terms of a resurgence of interest in cultural identity, retention and use of cultural philosophies and values, revitalisation and use of indigenous knowledge, and promotion and use of indigenous language

Treaty of Waitangi

Much of the recognition of indigenous rights in New Zealand is based on, and can be attributed to the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840. This document in two versions, one English and one Maori, provides a basis for bicultural development and partnership. However, the document, in two language versions, has resulted in arduous debate and interpretation. The Treaty has become a baseline document for most legislation in New Zealand and, as such, most laws and statutes highlight the responsibility and obligation to include a cultural component or approach within all economic, social and environmental planning and policy.

Maori values and beliefs

Traditional Maori beliefs, custom, and values are derived from a mixture of cosmogony, cosmology, mythology, religion, and anthropology. Within this complex and evolutionary belief system are the stories of the origin of the universe and of Maori people, the sources of knowledge and wisdom that have fashioned the concepts and relationship Maori have with the environment today.

Maori values are instruments through which Maori make sense, analyse, experience and interpret the modern world. They are based on a mixture of the traditional and the contemporary, and form the basis for explaining the Maori world-view.

Some important Maori values include:


Whakapapa is ancestral lineage or genealogical descent. From a Maori perspective, the origin of the universe and the world can be traced through a series of ordered genealogical webs, which go back hundreds of generations to the beginning. This genealogical sequence is referred to as whakapapa.

Whakapapa follows a sequence beginning with the nothingness, the void, the darkness, a supreme god, emerging light, through to the creation of the tangible world, the creation of two primeval parents, Ranginui - the sky father, and Papatuanuku - the earth mother, the birth of their children, such as the forest, the sea, the rivers, the animals, through to the creation of mankind. The two primeval parents, once inseparable, had a large number of children, often termed departmental atua or Maori gods, each with supernatural powers. In a plan carried out by the children to create light and flourish, the parents were prised apart. The separation of the parents led to Ranginui forming the sky, resulting in the rain as he continued to weep for his separated wife Papatuanuku, and Papatuanuku forming the land providing the sustained nourishment for all her children.

Social structure

Today 80% of all Maori live in urban areas. The main hierachical social groupings that Maori affiliate to through whakapapa are:

Today hapu, iwi as well as urban Maori, are the main groupings involved in pooling resources for health and economic service delivery, education, economic development, and environmental and resource management. The whanau provides the basic unit for decision making, administering specific blocks of land and utilising specific natural and human resources. Maori also have customary rights for using and managing natural resources within distinct tribal areas, both on land and at sea.

Environmental concepts

Environmental concepts have been fashioned from traditional Maori values such as whakapapa. Whakapapa places Maori in an environmental context with all other flora and fauna, natural resources, and ecological systems. Whakapapa also places responsibility and obligations on people.

Important Maori environmental concepts include:

Maori land

Maori have a deep spiritual and cultural relationship with the entire landscape of New Zealand that goes back hundreds of years. This relationship is particularly significant within specific tribal-geographic areas. Today, in terms of actual land ownership, Maori now own less than 6% of the total land area of New Zealand. Most Maori land is managed through trusts, land incorporations, and companies. In 1840 most land in New Zealand was under Maori control and ownership, the following Table 1 shows the change in Maori land ownership since 1840.

Table 1: Maori Land Ownership in New Zealand from 1840 to 1996














66 400 000

34 000 000

21 400 000

11 079 486

7137 205

4 787 686

4 028 903

3 000 000

2 626 091

3 743 689

29 880 000

15 300 000

9 630 000

4 985 000

3 211 000

2 154 000

1 813 000

1 350 000

1 181 740

1 515 071

Maori and Integrated Catchment Management

Integrated catchment management (ICM) must be responsive to a large number of stakeholder groups and tangata whenua (indigenous people of the land). ICM can help develop balanced solutions to complex problems and issues surrounding the sustainable management of natural resources in catchments. An understanding of Maori issues and the development of responsive research is an important component of ICM.

Maori values and historical occupation in a geographic area underlie many Maori issues. Maori knowledge and understanding Maori environmental perspectives are becoming important parts of ICM research in New Zealand.

There is an increasing role for using Maori knowledge (both contemporary and traditional) to help understand the spatial and temporal variation of cultural values, to find solutions to tangata whenua issues, improve understanding of catchment process, environmental change, resource allocation and use, and sustainable management of natural resources. Maori problem solving and issues analysis often takes place within indigenous frameworks.

Collaborative learning

Much of the social research in ICM is about:

The goal is to facilitate improved linkages between biophysical research, end users, and tangata whenua. 

Within ICM an important component is building and maintaining relationships and developing collaborative research opportunities with tangata whenua, iwi and hapu, and associated individuals and groups. 

Maori have a vested interest in all resource management, environmental research, environmental planning and policy, access to information from external agencies, and developing their own research.

Maori resource management

Today, around 150 Maori resource management (environmental) units and small Maori research groups exist in New Zealand, scattered throughout the country. Many of these groups only number between 1-5 persons and are usually affiliated to iwi/hapu, based around marae (cultural-social centres), or around an environmental or cultural project. Very few groups are well resourced and all have limited capacity to engage in research, planning and policy. Most groups regularly interact with local government but less commonly with research agencies. 

The majority of resource/environmental units are led by enthusiastic, passionate people, who work on several agendas at one time, have cultural responsibilities, as well as professional work responsibilities. Maori groups are increasingly developing environmental and cultural projects, such as biodiversity, cultural heritage protection, in conjunction with other agencies.

Some of the larger, more organised iwi in New Zealand, are proactive in securing funding for resource management and environmental planning, and many are exploring opportunities for research. 

A number of Maori professionals have also set up environmental and cultural consultancy businesses in different parts of the country.

Only a handful of people work professionally fulltime on cultural-environmental research and/or policy in New Zealand, many either located in Crown Research Institutes, Universities, or Local and Central Government. Many professional workers and academics are interactive with iwi and hapu groups, and networking is regularly carried out and promoted by those with common interests. Information on Maori environmental groups, issues, and kaitiaki can be found at: