UNESCO project

Whakaora ngā whenua whāma: utilising mātauranga Māori and western science to protect and restore the soil on rural farms in Tai Tokerau


logos partners

Project summary

A team involving kaumātua and landowners from the Takahiwai Kāinga in Tai Tokerau, scientists, educators and regulators will collaborate to utilise te reo Māori me ngā tikanga[1] (Māori language and culture) and western science methodologies to produce scientific evidence that supports the emerging concept of regenerative farming with the purpose to diminish and transform the adverse impacts of current industrial farming production on the land, air, and water.

Description of project

The United Nations has called for all nations to take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.  In 2019 the New Zealand Government launched a zero carbon bill that will create sweeping changes to the management of emissions, setting a global benchmark with ambitious reduction targets for all major greenhouse gases.

Agriculture is a major industry in New Zealand, contributing billions to the country’s Gross Domestic Product. The Primary Industries are also among our country’s largest employers.  However, agricultural processes create a variety of environmental challenges including CO2, nitrous oxide and methane emissions, freshwater contamination, soil loss and soil degradation. These challenges are particularly relevant to New Zealand since in 2015, there were 13.9 million hectares of farming land comprised of approximately 55,250 holdings, with an average size of 252 hectares.

In the proposed study, regenerative approaches to farming as a system of farming principles and practices that aim to increase biodiversity, enrich soil, improve watersheds and enhance ecosystem services will be explored.  The prevailing practices of farming focus on growing grass whereas regenerative farming focuses on growing soil.  In short, regenerative [farming] means to regenerate – improve/heal/sort mistakes from the past.

Project objectives

  1. Work with kaumātua and landowners in the Takahiwai Kāinga to co-create a research plan[2] to identify indigenous ways of managing soil health.
  2. Utilise existing literature, conversations with Māori and Pākehā landowners and field trials to develop basic soil health data from two participating Takahiwai farms.
  3. Identify multi-factors and processes that influence soil health on a farm using regenerative methods (e.g. pasture diversity, plant root depth, soil porosity, mycorrhizal associations, grazing intensities, carbon levels, soil microbiome) and compare to a non-regenerative farm.
  4. Work with Parawhau rangatahi (young people) and NorthTec students to develop a photographic exhibition at one of the marae kāinga in order to share the knowledge from the project and increase community engagement in it.
  5. Produce an evidenced based, bi-lingual narrative around the intersection between Māori approaches to farming and regenerative farming, and the potential of regenerative farming practice to improve soil health.


A qualitative Kaupapa Māori approach to research and a western science quantitative methodology will be utilised. Another guiding research kaupapa is Community Based Participative Research.

 Anticipated outcomes

  1. A network including Takahiwai kaumātua and rangatahi, local government agencies, academic researchers and leading scientists is established that has an ongoing commitment towards collaborating on the production of evidence-based narratives that prove the positive environmental effects of Māori approaches to farming and regenerative farming practices.
  2. Tamariki and rangatahi from the local area and students from NorthTec receive methodological research and photographic training.
  3. A photographic exhibition celebrating the community, the whenua and the research, involving rangatahi from the community itself.
  4. Open-access publication[3] of our findings on soil health results from regenerative pasture farms compared to non-regenerative farms and of the intersection between Māori approaches to farming and regenerative farming.

 Plans for follow up

The project is conceived as a pilot toward a larger cross-cultural study into soil health and land use, but also as a community engagement initiative toward that end. The ultimate goal of this collaboration is to prove or disprove that regenerative farming practices in Tai Tokerau are valid and show how regenerative farming methods can support the establishment of diversified land use, the revitalisation of rural indigenous communities and the mitigation of the acute impacts of farming on our wider environment.  We also aim to demonstrate how they can contribute to global efforts to mitigate and reverse the effects of climate change.

Project team (alphabetically)

Dr Benjamin Pittman (Ngāpuhi: Ngāti Hao – Te Popoto; Te Parawhau; Ngāti Hau) holds a PhD from the University of Technology in Sydney.  He is very active in cultural and resource management issues for Akerama Marae, Ngāti Hau, Te Parawhau and Ngāti Rahiri, and has an extensive cultural background and upbringing in Ngāpuhi genealogy, history, tikanga and cultural values.  Benjamin is an exhibiting and commissioned artist whose artistic works reflect a lifelong interest in landscape and people as part of landscape.

Dr Brent Clothier is a Principal Scientist with Plant & Food Research and an Adjunct Professor with Massey University, and Lincoln University. He has a BSc (Hons) from Canterbury University, and a PhD and DSc from Massey University. Brent is a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand, the Soil Science Society of America, the American Agronomy Society, the American Geophysical Union, and the New Zealand Soil Science Society.

Bruce Howse is the GM for Environmental Services at the Northland Regional Council.  He enjoys working for and with the people of Northland to achieve positive environmental outcomes for the region.  His expertise is in the management of natural resources and natural hazards. He holds a BSc and MSc

Catherine Murupaenga-Ikenn (Ngāti Kuri, Te Rarawa) holds a Bachelor of Laws and a Bachelor of Law and Social Sciences. In 2005 she was awarded the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights Indigenous Fellowship representing the Pacific and she continues to represent her peoples in different UN work. Catherine has been an iwi advisor on three technical working groups (regarding climate change, constitutional transformation and the Monitoring Mechanism for the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples) affiliated with the National Iwi Chairs Forum. She holds Ministry for the Environment certification in Resource Management Act Decision making, and has held several trustee positions for her peoples’ governing boards, and local schools. Catherine is a trustee of the Climate Change Tai Tokerau Northland Trust.

Marcus Williams is an Associate Professor Creative Industries and Director Research and Enterprise at Unitec Institute of Technology. He holds a Masters of Fine Arts from RMIT University and a Bachelor of Photography from the University of Auckland.  In his personal research, he is interested in creative practice as an agent of social change. He has led several highly collaborative, transdisciplinary projects with multiple complex outputs.

Peter Bruce-Iri holds a Masters in Management and a National Diploma in Horticulture. He has a passion for organic production. His 2014 report The Social and Economic Impact of the Whangarei Growers Market precipitated a series of regenerative food systems projects. Peter was a founding director of Local Food Northland in 2016 and in 2017 was the lead convenor for the Local Food Northland Conference. This in turn led to the establishment of the Northland Food Policy Network: He Kai Ora Tonu. Peter then went on to work with others around the country to establish the Aotearoa Food Policy Council.  Paul Hawken’s Project Drawdown was a catalyst for Peter to integrate food systems and climate change discourse in the Tai Tokerau context and in 2018, was the lead convenor for the Tai Tokerau Climate Change Action Conference. Peter is a founding trustee of the Climate Change Tai Tokerau Northland Trust.  He has established a network of 20 regenerative farmers and works to promote regenerative agriculture and support the development of a community of learning. He is working to achieve a transformation of agriculture in New Zealand.

Dr Tangiwai Mere Appleton Kēpa (Ngāti Whātua, Te Whakatōhea, Te Whānau ā Rūtaia, Ngāpuhi, & Ngāi Tūhoe) is a prolific academic writer and has published articles in national and international journals in a variety of areas from educational philosophy and theory; multilingualism and multi-culturalism, pedagogy to culture and gerontology. In more than two decades of research and work, Dr Mere Kēpa has enriched many groups of people with her experiences, excellent skills in writing and analysis, in-depth insights into Māori and New Zealand European Pākehā ways of thinking and acting. Mere has depth and strengths to think and speak critically about practices and ways of working that are unethical and not morally sound. She is not afraid to identify and to point out areas to improve work expected of research groups and team members. A key strength in the success of her research and work at the interface of cultures, politics and power lies in her capacity to create and build good relationships by way of on-going talanoa, critical dialogues with people around her.


[1] To provide a sense of wholeness, unity, and harmony between te reo (language) and culture (a way of being).

[2] By ‘research plan’ we mean we will put together a list of questions to ask Māori landowners who are farming.

[3] The publication will be co-authored with Māori members of our project team and will recognise all of our project participants.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s