Four years ago, I arrived straight from completing a postgraduate degree in Geography and Environmental Management, to working for Te Ipukarea Society, an environmental Non-Government Organisation (NGO).
After completing my studies, I had no intentions of getting into the environmental conservation field, in fact I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I had been applying for retail jobs in Auckland, in order to pass the time until an interesting job back in Rarotonga popped up.
I was forwarded the advertisement for a project assistant at Te Ipukarea Society and thought “why not? Here is my chance to achieve my goal of moving back home to the islands.”
While I had some theoretical knowledge, moving to the islands and working in environmental conservation was to prove just how much I still needed to learn about our island ecosystems and the challenges our people face in keeping those ecosystems healthy and thriving. This is the stuff you don’t learn at university.
Within the first week of diving straight into some of our projects, I was talking to local students about how cycling to school would not only be good for our physical health, but also reduce our emissions and therefore our nation’s contribution to global climate change. Making these seemingly unrelated connections clear, and using holistic approaches (about how everything we do is connected and affects other things) was to be a major aspect of my work for the organisation.
Another early project was working on the Tanga’eo (Mangaian Kingfisher) where we travelled to Mangaia to study the bird, its habitats, and to talk with the Mangaian community about how to best protect the bird. An outcome of this was a Tanga’eo Management Plan Video. This project, which focused on an endemic (this was to become one of my favourite words – basically it means a species found only in one specific area, island or country) bird of Mangaia, sparked a passion of mine to understand and protect our Cook Island endemic species.
These include birds such as the Kakerori and I’oi (Rarotonga endemics), Kopeka (Atiu endemic), Kerearoko and Kukupa (Cook Island endemics), and also plants, insects and even fish.
Fast forward four years and I have been able to travel to a number of countries to represent the NGO, the nation, or simply build my own capacity on topics such as: Science and Sustainability, Large Marine Protected Area Management, UNESCO Youth, attending the World Conservation Congress, Whale Research, Protected Areas, and Ridge to Reef Sustainability. I enjoyed visiting our Pa Enua even more, to understand the different ecosystems present on our outer islands, and for me to explore more about what it means to be from the Pa Enua, rather than simply a Rarotongan.
Our work in the outer islands included surveying ‘ara pepe (an endemic pandanus plant) on Ma’uke, and surveying the Kura bird (Rimatara Lorikeet) on ‘Atiu. Being a member of the Marae Moana Technical Advisory Group was a privilege as I was able to participate in and learn from a high-level technical board of our Marae Moana.
One of the key interests I have grown since being with Te Ipukarea Society has been learning about our traditional knowledge of our ecosystems. This knowledge includes the signs which plants and animals can show us (e.g. impending cyclone, whale season, fish below the surface), uses of plants (as food, craft materials, cooking packaging, medicine), and generally understanding the intimate way our tupuna thrived off the land and ocean.
I believe our Maori people have gradually become disconnected from our environment and this cultural knowledge. Culture is now seen primarily as dancing and singing. I now know that planting of traditional crops, subsistence fishing, surviving in the bush, and understanding how to read our environment should be considered just as much a part of our culture.
Practices such as planting taro should not be considered a “backward” thing to do, or only for the uneducated, as every person who practises planting (or fishing, traditional medicine) is conducting scientific observation and contributing to the upkeep of the huge body of traditional knowledge which we need to be able to exist harmoniously in our islands.
From these experiences, I now want to work more closely in bridging the gap between mainstream conservation and our indigenous cultures.
Currently, many conservation area managers around the world still believe people, including indigenous people, should be kept separate from nature. Also, many conservation projects which focus on certain species do not bother to take into account traditional knowledge of the species in question or of the habitat it lives in, which indigenous peoples may know intimately.
I also feel that understanding and respecting indigenous guardianship values are crucial to successful conservation.
In Aotearoa, Kaitiakitanga is a great example of such a cultural value.
If Mana Tiaki is our equivalent, I believe it needs more work to clearly articulate what it means in terms of how we should perceive and interact with our natural environment. For these reasons I am currently studying a Masters in Indigenous Studies at the University of Auckland. Once my studies are complete, I hope to return home with my family to continue work in this field and contribute to the strengthening of our Ipukarea.
I am glad to know that Te Ipukarea Society and other passionate conservationists will continue to fight for the protection of our beautiful islands and ecosystems while I am away, and I am very much looking forward to rejoining the effort when I return.
- Liam Kokaua