Adaptation Champion

Moira Poutama & Aroha Spinks

Moira and Aroha in the restored Kuku wetlands. Photograph by Sylvie Whinray.

Moira and Aroha are researchers on their ancestral whenua in the Horowhenua, between the mountains and the coast. 

The wetlands where they’ve carried out their research, including the restored coastal dune ecosystem of Lake Waiorongomai, were not long ago as barren as the adjacent paddocks, grazed by cows. Now the whenua is returning to life, and wetland birds alight among harakeke and tī kouka. 

It’s where the women feel happiest carrying out their research. “Whenua, moana, awa, roto,” they say. On the land, by the sea, in the rivers and lakes.

“Whenua i te ao, i te po. Ka taea te whenua te kōrero ki a mātou. Ancestral landscapes, steeped in tradition and tohu, speak to us.”

The restoration work is extraordinary but, as community researchers, Moira and Aroha believe that they’re following in the footsteps of others. The first phase of their research – a project also led by Huhana Smith of Massey University – combined data about soil, floods, topography, river sedimentation and sea level rise, to identify the most vulnerable areas of the hapū’s coastal farms. The research team used an interdisciplinary approach to identify indicators of change and staged strategies for adaptation. 

In the second phase of the team’s research, they looked at additional physical processes, such as future change in groundwater levels, and identified a wider range of options for managing wetlands and landscapes.

They see huge potential to re-plant the coast in harakeke, which was flourishing before the land was cleared for farming. The team are now investigating the potential to establish a tuna fishery for the hapū, and are trying to understand the impact of climate change on this freshwater taonga. 

Moira and Aroha are part of the community their research is about. “Tautoko rātou i tēnei kaupapa,” they say. “The landowners have led this research with their aspirations and are highly supportive of this kaupapa.”

Equally, their research changes to meet the aspirations of the community. Whanau- and landowner-led research is important to the team, as is a collaborative research approach that is able to respond to the aspirations of landowners. 

The team is researching on specific whenua, and express that the whenua itself is one of their end users. “Whenua i te ao, i te pō. Ka taea te whenua te kōrero ki a mātou. Ancestral landscapes, steeped in tradition and tohu, speak to us.”

Towards the conclusion of the first research phase, the team presented a remarkable final exhibition in a cleaned up series of disused dairy sheds. It was made even more remarkable when an ephemeral rainbow rose from the ground nearby. 

As researchers on a project about our changing climate, the imperative to adapt may well compete with the imperative to respond to what communities want and need. But neither Moira nor Aroha see it that way. “E rua, e rua.They both have equal importance. Our collaborative team respond to both equally.”

In response to the question of whether Aotearoa has enough community-based researchers working on the question of climate adaptation, the duo are unequivocal: “Kāo.” It simply means no.

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