Māori cultural sites among most vulnerable to climate change, rising sea levels

Māori cultural sites will be among the most vulnerable to climate change and rising sea levels.

Of the almost 800 marae situated across Aotearoa, 80 percent are built on low-lying coastal land or flood-prone rivers. That means many Māori burial sites and plantations or food sources will be at risk.

A total 191 marae are identified within 1 kilometre of the coastline, and new data released last weekend predicts for many coastal areas, a 30-centimetre sea level rise is coming in only 10 to 20 years.

A PhD student has found that six marae already have one-in-100 year floods coming every year, while the same thing would happen at 16 others when sea level rise reaches between 10cm and 1 metre.

Locals in the remote Far North community of Mitimiti are already feeling the impact of the sea level encroaching on their marae.

Mātihetihe Marae is situated behind sand dunes in Mitimiti north of the Hokianga Harbour. For 10-year-old Simone Manning, it's her turangawaewae, her ancestral home - but it's in danger of being washed away and she says it's not fair.

"You need us to have more of a say, let us rangatahi have a seat at the table when making decisions because we are most impacted by the choices made by older generations," she said.

Simone can't imagine not having a marae in 50 years and said she doesn't want to bring children into this world in the future if we aren't serious about climate change.

"I can't drink or swim in the same water my grandparents bathed my mother in when she was a baby."

Coastal marae like Mātihetihe are increasingly at the mercy of rising tides and changing weather patterns. 

Last month, we saw part of an urupā, or burial ground, at Hinetamatea Marae in Anaura Bay washed away after heavy rainfall across Tairāwhiti.

In Auckland, tidal surges have flooded Maraetai and Ngāti Whātua ki Ōrākei's urupā near Mission Bay.

Back in Mititmiti, Mātihetihe Marae spokesperson Ana Bercich said Cyclone Bola in 1988 got them thinking about the future.

"It ripped through this valley, the flooding came through our marae, and through our wharekai and so that was a wake-up call for us."

In the last decade, the marae has been working with NIWA scientists on ways to adapt and whānau have been coming up with their own solutions. 

One is an architect and drew up designs on transportable marae.

"She designed three pods for us so we can have those spaces and their removal and we can relocate them somewhere else," Bercich said.

Mātihetihe Marae.
Mātihetihe Marae. Photo credit: Newshub.

Moving away from areas that have been burial grounds and food sources for generations is a tough proposition for Māori.

"So these conversations illustrating, okay, your marae might be impacted, or you may have to move is a really hard pill to swallow," said Waikato University PhD student Akuhata Bailey-Winiata.

Since two tectonic plates meet in the middle of Aotearoa, parts of the coast can sink quickly. Because of that, the global average sea-level rise of 30cm by 2060 is coming to parts of New Zealand in only 10 to 20 years.

Mātihetihe Marae is one of 191 marae across Aotearoa that is within 1km of the coast, and of these coastal marae 30 percent are situated below 10m above sea level. 

But now with the vertical land movement data, what this means for marae is really exactly how they are going to be affected.

For example, the blue dots on one map on the New Zealand SeaRise Programme website indicate the mouth of the Hokianga harbour is sinking. White and pink dots further up the estuary suggest land movement will go up, but flooding could still have a big impact for marae and communities there.

"This information should help communities decide, 'Do I need to move this now? Or have I got a little bit more time than I thought. Well, if I got less time than I thought, and if we're going to relocate or shift, where should we put it so that it's future proof?'," said NZ SeaRise Study co-lead Professor Richard Levy.

Activist Mike Smith is currently taking New Zealand's biggest carbon emitters to the Supreme Court. He's also in charge of climate change policy for the Iwi Leaders Chair Forum.

He said Māori will have a team working directly with the Ministry for the Environment on the Government's national adaptation plan to deal with the impacts of climate change. 

"We're going to be setting that up over the next month or two. That's going to be empowering communities by providing full-time positions for climate navigators and each of those communities to start doing the assessments to working with those communities," he said.

"Because it's really important that we own the problems, and that we understand that there are real problems."

Real problems already known to these Te Rarawa descendants in Mitimiti.

"In between here and the next valley, there's going to be sea-level rise so eventually we might have manuhiri come by waka again, like they use to," Bercich said.

"We need to make change and it's got to be quick," Simone added.

Toi te kupu, toi te mana, toi te whenua. The meaning behind this proverb is that without Māori language, prestige, and land, Māori culture will cease to exist.

The fight is on to save the land.

This article is part of Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.