Robert McGowan

Amo Aratu (Senior Technical Specialist), Te Papa Atawhai (New Zealand Department of Conservation)

On March 20th 2017 the New Zealand parliament passed the Te Awa Tupua (Whanganui River Claims Settlement) Bill which established the Whanganui River as a legal “person” with all of the rights, powers, duties, and liabilities of the same. The Act endorses and illustrates how Māori perceive their relationship to the natural world. The passing of the Act challenged the River people to restore their ancestral river to good health. Changes in land use beginning in the later part of the 19th century had seen soil fertility decline, water quality deteriorate and the soils that sustained life in its catchment increasingly washed out to sea. These impacts profoundly changed the lifestyles of the people that belonged to it.  Describing the issues facing the River Iwi (tribes) and their response to them will help illustrate traditional understandings relating to the River, the Whenua (the land) and the life sustain capacity of the soil. It also serves to demonstrate the relevance of traditional knowledge to addressing the current ecological crisis.

This presentation will focus on key concepts from Māori understandings of the natural world that relate to the primary themes of this conference and suggest how they can contribute toward deepening and broadening our knowledge of soils and what needs to be done to sustain them. In particular the concept of “Mauri” will be explored and how that relates to the capacity of soils to support the life that belongs there. Māori and many traditional peoples regard the whole landscape as essentially interdependent and that the wellness of any part of it, be it soils, vegetation, water quality, etc., can only be understood within the context of the whole network of connections that sustain life. The challenge for researchers, from an indigenous perspective, is to be mindful of the “whole” while focusing on the areas of their particular expertise.


Rob McGowan is an Amo Aratu (Senior Technical Specialist) for the New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC) and a key advisor for a Government programme that administers funding for the protection of indigenous ecosystems on Māori land. His work has a strong focus on building bridges between Western Science and Matauranga Māori (traditional Māori knowledge). In 2018 Rob was awarded the Loder Cup for outstanding work in incorporating Matauranga Māori into conservation management. Rob is one of the foremost authorities on rongoā Māori (traditional Māori medicine) and is well respected nationally for his work with and for the restoration of rongoā Māori practice in New Zealand. He has been involved for more than 20 years in teaching, researching and assisting Māori to re-engage in traditional uses of NZ native plants, particularly for medicine (rongoā Māori).  Rob is a regular presenter on Māori Television’s “Kiwi Maara & Maara Kai programs sharing his vast knowledge on rongoā Māori with the New Zealand public.  He is author of “Rongoā Māori – a practical guide to traditional Māori Medicine” (2009).

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