Friday, May 09, 2008

Maori Ecopolitics: A Preliminary Cut

Having decided to place this blog under the rubric of Maori Ecopolitics following several years as Maori Bioprotection, I’m faced with the task of defining what it is I mean. The original use of ‘bioprotection’ came from the focus of the Centre of Research Excellence established at Lincoln University in 2002, coinciding with my doctoral studies there. The National Centre for Advanced Bioprotection Technologies had within its ambit four themes, one of which was Matauranga Maori Bioprotection. One of the outcomes was to be the actual discourse of Matauranga Maori Bioprotection, entrusted to Theme leader Hirini Matunga. Hirini, bless, has yet to deliver on this chore, and the theme itself has contracted under wizened leadership (I touch on this in my thesis and have presented several papers concerning the CoRE’s institutionalised racism). However, the employment of a new research coordinator – Melanie Shadbolt - who starts May 12th will give the theme a much-needed boost.

Rehash: Maori Bioprotection
I approached the concept of bioprotection by seeking to answer what was being protected, how it was to be protected, and for the benefit of whom. The ‘what’ was broadly answered by the conceptual framework for this project comprised of 4 components: kaitiaki, the growers and holders of the taonga or crops (such as taewa and kumara) through the expression of tikanga (values) and ritenga (practices) all of which swirl around the centre-piece of mauri. (see NCABT 2007).

The ‘how’ was answered by an examination of the CoRE’s other themes which were:
Theme 1 - Biosecurity (“…detecting unwanted organisms at the border using sensor technology and molecular diagnostics, and developing intelligent computing systems to predict the potential of new organisms to become pests.”
Theme 2 - Biocontrol (“…managing weeds, pests and diseases using environmentally friendly biocontrol agents that are an alternative to chemical pesticides. The applied research is underpinned by fundamental studies that examine the specific interaction between biocontrol agents and their host pests).
Theme 3 - Agri-Biotechnology (“…investigating the molecular basis of plant-microbe interactions and developing advanced biotechnologies to confer resistance to pests or pathogens).

In other words, the CoRE’s internal capacity would set the parameters for what Theme 4…Matauranga Maori Bio-Protection (“…researching bio-protection techniques that are acceptable to Maori growers by incorporating Maori perspectives and tikanga into bio-protection strategies”) could ultimately undertake. (As things played out, the main collaborative partner was Theme 2 – Biocontrol - under the auspices of Prof. Steve Wratten.

The ‘who’ was tricky, at least for the NCABT. From the outset there were a number of hurdles to this fourth theme. First there was the rather glaring disparity of natural scientists to social scientists: in the post-graduate ranks the ratio was 36 to 1 (me). While the too-easy binary of natural/social science can be overplayed, it is somewhat galling to find a scientific institution so ignorant of the social activity it is undertaking – both in a reflective manner of engaging with Maori and the broader socio-economic goals it is funded to work towards. I recall two written comments from other team leaders on my Ph.D. proposal, the first querying the overexposure of Maori to export-oriented primary industries (a simple statistical analysis); the second wondering – if Maori really were suspicious of ‘research’ as I (and many, many others) noted - why the hell were we wanting to do it anyway!

My default position (after David Harvey, I think) is that any environmental issue is necessarily a political-economic issue. First there is the obvious interpretation of environment, always viewed through the lens of cultural logics (the ideas, beliefs, and values underpinning intersubjectivity). Second, there is the willing or otherwise interaction of societies with their environment, always tempered by the subset of economic logics (as in human activities to satisfy human needs and wants, reflected through the ideas, beliefs and values of the aforementioned cultural logics…new car or new breasts; fresh bread and milk or cigarettes). Thus the internal wranglings of the NCABT are but a subset of the political-economic wranglings of Lincoln University, The Aotearoa/NZ economy (often called a bioeconomy due to our heavy reliance on primary industries), and the global economy that has become something of a ubiquitous explanation for our poverty.

Maori Ecopolitics, therefore, refers to the cultural political economic discourse through which Maori articulate their cultural logics into the political arena of the world at large. It has its origins in the embedded tribal experiences and lived histories of our people, not just how we’ve interaqcted with other Maori but with Pakeha, tauiwi and, increasingly, other denizens of Planet Earth (Check FOMA and their recent China-NZ Free Trade seminars…).

So, everything to play for...

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