Ancient Rongoā Māori practices to fight Kauri dieback are part of a broader revival of indigenous medical practices in NZ

Traditional Rongoā Māori health practitioners claim indigenous treatments are curing Kauri trees of dieback and the Government is investing.

Work to fight Kauri dieback is happening amidst a broader revival of Rongoā, or traditional Māori medicine.

The 1907 Tohunga Act banning Rongoā was repealed in 1962, however, the practices remained fringe. Since 2020, Rongoā has been funded by ACC and there are now 110 fully registered ACC Rongoā Māori practitioners across Aotearoa. 

While Rongoā is becoming more normalised, the period during which it was banned and unsupported means knowledge has been lost. 

"We've lost our traditional places where we would normally learn, some of those practices are lost," says Tohe Ashby, a Tohunga, or Rongoā expert, who practices at the Northland clinic 'Hohou Te Rongoā'.

"Our Tohunga could not practice, thus some died with that knowledge. Some had to go underground with their work."

From childhood, Ashby was taught the right plants to harvest and how to use them to treat sick whānau. Over four decades he has shared his Rongoā Māori knowledge with his communities and iwi, including song, massage, and plant-based medicines to help reconnect and restore wellbeing.

A core tenet of Rongoā is the interconnectedness between people and the land.

"My connection is rooted in genealogy and that is of Mother Earth and our Sky Father. That's also our connection to these trees and we should never forget that, that they are us, we are one."

For Māori, Kauri trees like Tāne-Mahuta are ancestors, making the fight against Kauri dieback all the more critical. 

Ashby has been treating a Kauri at Whangārei heads with Rongoā for the past four years and he claims the ancient medicine is working. 

Working alongside fellow Tohunga Hori Parata, Ashby has applied a topical cream made out of sperm whale bone and spermaceti oil to the bark of the tree. They also companion-planted and sprayed a traditional Mānuka and Kānuka Rongoā on the soil around the sick Kauri. 

It has been discovered that flavonoids from Kānuka do inhibit phytophthora - a cause of Kauri dieback, a 2019 study in the Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand emphasising the value of studying mātauranga Māori, or traditional Māori knowledge.

Such success has been recognised by the government, with 32pct of the funding for Biosecurity NZ's Kauri Protection Agency - Tiakina Kauri - allocated to mana whenua. 

Mātauranga Māori extends from the forest and into the sea. 

The practice of flensing a whale, the removing of the blubber or outer skin of whales, is a sacred one for Māori. 

"Tangaroa has gifted us this, and now we can carry on customarily and culturally. And what we do we take for granted really and this is hugely significant for us all," says Joe Davis of Ngāti Hei. 

The spermaceti, or waxy substance, inside sperm whale's heads is collected and rendered into a high-grade oil claimed to have medicinal properties and used in Rongoā such as in the treatment of Kauri dieback. 

Blake Te Kata, a Mātauranga and Rongoā Māori Practitioner, uses spermaceti because "it's a rejuvenating oil, it's a high preserving oil. I make creams and it preserves my Rongoā longer."

Te Kata is part of a new generation of Mātauranga Māori & Rongoā practitioners who are learning from those who came before. 

He says his practice "is providing our future and our people with knowledge. Instead of going to the chemist all the time and having to go get prescriptions from the doctor, they can just do it themselves. Your chemist is your ngahere - forest - and the ngahere is you."

While the government has committed $100m to fight Kauri dieback since 2017, for Rongoā Māori Practitioners it's not just about resources, but also about restoring the Kauri through ancient practices specifically. 

Te Whatu Ora, the Ministry of Health, is considering an increase in funding for Northland Rongoā clinics - and expansion into areas not yet serviced. 

It is also working with the Māori Health Authority on a Therapeutic Products Bill that it says will protect rongoā Māori for future generations. 

Watch the full video for more.

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Ancient Rongoā Māori practices to fight Kauri dieback are part of a broader revival of indigenous medical practices in NZ