Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Maori in Parliament

How things change.

Back in the Orwellian year (1984), just 6% of the Aotearoa/NZ parliament was Maori, Pasifika or Asian. Compare that to the latest parliament (elected in 2008) where 16% of MPs identify themselves as Maori. This means we're slightly overrepresented.

Wait for the bleating to start.

Paving stone in Jack Kerouac Alley, San Francisco.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

NZ in top 10 countries for income disparity: What does this this mean for Maori poverty?

Top 10 countries with the biggest gaps between rich and poor

1 Hong Kong
2 Singapore
3 US
4 Israel
5 Portugal
6 New Zealand
7= Italy
7= Britain
9 Australia
10= Ireland
10= Greece

According to the OECD, New Zealand had the biggest rise in inequality among member nations in the two decades starting in the mid-1980s. Most of these countries are part of the tribe we like to fashion ourselves after (remember how we were advised to be more like Ireland, the Celtic Tiger, more like Singapore, how we have to catch-up with Australia blah blah blah...).

As for Aotearoa/NZ, well it's like the quirky results for South Africa which was one of the richest states in the world, if you counted the few million whites...
The Child Poverty Action Group have brought together some damming studies, e.g., this one from Professor Innes Asher and Dr Steve Poletti.

toi iho/Maori made

The trademark initiated to promote Maori arts and crafts - Toi Iho - has been scrapped by its State agent, Creative New Zealand. I wrote a paper on Geographical Indicators some time ago (June 2004 I'm surprised to see...). I think it is an area worth more attention.

Concerns over intellectual property issues expressed by Maori seem to be lie primarily within patent/copyright/trademark tradition, although Plant Variety Rights feature in the Wai 262 claim. In February 2002 a trademark was created by Creative New Zealand to ‘maintain the integrity’ of Maori art, and to assist in promoting this art and recognised artists nationally and internationally. The toi iho™ trademark marks a significant development in Maori IP. The mark is restricted to works by artists (individuals or groups) who are of Maori descent and whose work is of acknowledged quality (Creative NZ, 2004). The trademark is in many ways a response to Maori embarrassment and anger at blatant ‘rip offs’ in the tourism industry but should equally be interpreted as efforts by ‘Brand NZ Inc.’ to secure added value production for the New Zealand economy.

As in Europe, it is the wine and gourmet foods sectors that provide the most sophisticated examples. Tohu Wines has proven a successful brand for Wakatu Inc./Wi Pere Trust/Ngati Rarua Atiawa Iwi Trust to market $4 million of wine, principally to U.K. and U.S. consumers (Tohu Wines, 2004). In the words of James Wheeler, CEO, the main point of difference for their marketing is “being Maori…it makes their experience of our product superior” (Anon, 2003: 25). The attributes of ‘freshness’ and ‘naturalness’ have been attached to other Maori agri-food ventures, often embedded in organic practices; seafood is a significant example, especially in the South Island. Medicinal products stemming from traditional herbal remedies also feature; Tairawhiti Pharmaceuticals have commercially developed a product based on manuka oil that is unique to the region (Cooper, 1995; Cooke and Cooke, n.d.; Tairawhiti Pharmaceuticals, 2004). It is becoming apparent that ‘Maoriness’ is a component of added value, not just for the country as an ‘eco-destination’, but for individual hapu and iwi land-based ventures.

My reasoning for explicitly connecting hapu and iwi land-based industries to what is now a global intellectual property regime via Geographical Indicators is based on sustainability theories that likewise link local communities – their biotic resources and knowledge thereof, as well as lifestyles and livelihoods – to global sustainability, i.e. the actual continuation of human civilisation (with the presumed added benefit of increasing social justice along the way; see Goodman and Redclift, 1991; Berkes et al., 2003). My position is also based on a pragmatic realisation that while it is easy to clench a fist against global capitalism, it’s very hard to turn down extra money when this thing called moni solves so many mundane problems.

The continued growth of cultural and agricultural industries will see ongoing contests for property rights, not just over physical resources but for the ephemeral concepts of intellectual property; the phenomenon has been termed yet another ‘enclosure’ of a global commons (May, 2000). These contests are played out along extended networks that incorporate both social and technical elements. For indigenous peoples, these ‘sociotechnical’ networks have always been difficult to negotiate from a position that is in many ways subversive to state and corporate organisations from the outset. Although concerns ranging from access to markets and trade disparities to food safety and social justice issues, affect and afflict people of all nations, the negative impacts fall disproportionately on the poor. This is a challenge to Maori development that is geared towards that great Brand Kiwi tradition, pampering the puku of the global rich (see Ingrid D. Rowland's review of Feast: A History of Grand Eating by Roy Strong for an insight into the global history of this bioculture...)

That both cultural and biological diversity present themselves as not only desirable but necessary for the long-term survival of the human race underpins important discourses on sustainability. The philosophical position on the appropriation of wealth from the sheer novelty of indigenous food and drink is worthy of more serious discussion. The opportunity for indigenous land owners anywhere to state their commitment to sustainable methods cannot be denied. If this commitment can then justify a premium price in a global market - given that a global aesthetic as well as simple survival is dependent on economically marginal peoples - that is to be applauded.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Māori and the Gene Pool: Do we filter, drain or dredge?

Here's a peer commentary I was aksed to write for a recent edition of the MAI review. It was declined as being too jokey, which I accept. Still, here it is regardless...

What is it about genetic research that reads like a Hollywood B-movie? Certainly the characters are straight out of a casting manual: the ascetic German monk (Gregor Mendel), an eccentric Englishman (Charles Darwin), clean-cut American hero (James Watson), another Englishman Francis Crick (who as a doctoral student in Blitz-torn London was presented with the perfect excuse when his lab was destroyed by a German bomb), a colonial (New Zealander Maurice Wilkins, born in Pongaroa, Wairarapa), an ‘moody’ woman (Rosalind Franklin), and villains galore in the form of capitalists and mad scientists, trying to patent genetic information while cloning dead pets on the side (Rose, Kamin, & Lewontin, 1984; Tudge, 2000; Verschuuren, 1995). And the storylines resonate with the great themes of world cinema. There are quests for knowledge, a host of quirky, competitive, difficult, sometimes plain dishonest colleagues, and the constantly changing political and professional contexts that force alliances one day only to drive them asunder the next. There are recurring historical narratives of surreal oppression - Lysenkoism in Stalinist Russia and the anti-Darwin/anti-evolution ‘Monkey Trial’ in Christian fundamentalist American heartland (Dayton, Ohio, to be precise) - and the corollary heroism of the idealistic scientist, Dobzhansky, or the small-town, bespectacled high school teacher, John Thomas Scopes. On the sci-fi shelf we have the Human Genome Project that, akin to the Supercollider of physics is, a) supposed to shed light on the meaning of life, and b) is very, very, expensive. The history of genetic research is ripe with outlandish personalities, drama and melodrama, and the high-wire politics we get out on DVD for a rainy weekend.

Yet the basics of genetics are so easily communicated, are they not? In the form of a shape (the rather nifty double helix), and ‘written’ in four base ‘letters’ which even more simply always pair up but in ways so numerous we have, drum roll please, the Code of Life. Simple as A, T, G, C. Of course things are never so simple. Mendel, the so-called father of genetics, failed his exams, twice, through anxiety, and his work, which took eight years to complete, was ignored for over three decades. Darwin, adhering to the undergraduate dictum ‘it’s never too late to procrastinate’, published after 20 years of studious deliberation, and then only on a prompt from Alfred Russell Wallace who had essentially come to the same conclusions. If female graduates still struggle against institutional sexism, imagine the experiences of Rosalind Franklin who was, among other things, Jewish and practically the only woman in the monastic labs of post-war Cambridge. (She was to die, age 37, from ovarian cancer brought on by her work with X-rays which had revealed the actual structure of DNA). The anti-evolution theory show trial of Scopes was thought up by several Dayton businessmen who saw an opportunity to put Dayton on the map. There is, after all, no such thing as bad publicity. If one might be so bold as to make a quick synopsis: genes spell trouble.

But the beauty of DNA is not just that it has a simple structure, amenable to change, but that it is wonderfully adept at explanation. On the walls of the Lincoln University gym is a poster proclaiming we are ‘hard-wired’ to crave fat and sugar: s/he/I couldn’t help themselves/myself … pass the coke please. Of course genetic determinism, like any other determinism, is fine if you get to do the determining and as Gary Hook points out, our ability as Māori to determine research in which we appear as a keyword is still lacking to the extent that Lea and Chambers (2007), while ostensibly seeking to illuminate issues of Māori and Pasifika health, step into something of a void but like the cartoon coyote keep running until they look down…

Marxist biologist Richard Lewontin (surely worth Googling on that introduction alone), warned of the dangers of fixating on DNA, as if through reductionist observation you could understand emergent life itself (1985; 1982). In this Richard Dawkins (while something of a gene-fiend himself) takes us towards useful territory with his musing upon the concept of the ‘meme’ (rhyming with cream, not mimi), a unit of cultural transmission, of imitation if you like. Memes are to be regarded as living structures, having real-world effects in operating as conceptual parasites that use the human as a vehicle of propagation. Thus when we hear the word ‘warrior’ in association with an ethnic group, we can quickly shut down confusion as the ‘world’ already matches up a set of manifestations – crime statistics, a preternatural ability to play full-contact sport, underachievement in education, and so on. This ‘savage’ meme arose through the blissful ignorance of Enlightenment thinkers to become official policy, supported by scientific research and perpetuated through popular media. It’s in the childrens’ stories of Enid Blyton, the racial profiling of the 1970s dawn raids, and the biography of George Nepia. Like a bad prawn curry, it just repeats.

All this, and more, has been dismantled by Stephen Jay Gould, the British evolutionary biologist and anatomist who became a historian through his work on biology in general and evolution in particular. Gould, who takes some delight in the dispute it must be said, destroys biological determinism in his Mismeasure of Man (Gould, 1996). The book was first published in 1981 (a year for, um, reflection on the New Zealand perspectives of racial categorisation if ever there was one) in reaction to the surge in popularity of biological determination vis-à-vis blacks and whites in the reactionary climate of 1970s America. It was subsequently republished in the aftermath of Herrnstein and Murray’ The Bell Curve. Just to remind us, the Bell Curve purports to prove Blacks are not as intelligent as Whites, and – as the James ‘The Father of DNA’ Watson was quoted saying in 2007 “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours - whereas all the testing says not really.” So don’t bother, there’s nothing that can be done about poverty in Africa, violence in the ghettoes, ethnic minority underachievement in education. It’s nobodies fault. It’s their genes…

As Gould points out, the impact of the Bell Curve cannot be put down to its science. So why the continued enthusiasm for genetic determinism? Well, why do people watch adverts for things they already own? To be reassured they have made the right choice. The recurrence of racist discourse is, simply, socio-political. Of course, by ‘simply’ I mean in concordance with the media sensationalism, blithe ignorance and curious disdain that characterises modern life. As Gould and others have detailed in horrific detail, ascriptions of character, psychology, and potential on the basis of biology underpin a political doctrine we barely discuss but cannot erase: violent, oppressive, rightwing, market-mimetic, fascistic, racism.

As for the limited study of Rakaipaaka genetics, it’s content can be, indeed has been, critiqued by the researchers’ peers (Crampton & Parkin, 2007; Merriman & Cameron, 2007). This is not to say that genetics is not important for Māori health: one day it may be the most important thing, the last bastion of personalised healthcare for Indigenous Peoples! But not yet, not when we’re still trying to get our tamariki on nutritional diets, remove cigarettes and alcohol from the purchasing power of teenagers, and properly housing our kaumātua. Countering the racism behind these struggles takes place in many dimensions and at various scales.

I have a sneaking suspicion the danger is not that such science takes place: there isn’t that much of it, and other scientists have been so brutally scathing of its approach and findings. Even if Māori could influence the destination of seven figure amounts in Crown Research Institutes, this is mere tinkering. When Mendel was breeding his sweetpeas, Karl Marx was tracing the hereditary nature of global capital which ultimately came ashore, first by sailing ship, now by internet, and continues to mate with us and itself in ways so perverse we have yet to properly name it all. The terrible thing is, Pakeha don’t understand it either.

So how do we change it? What memes to we want to spread? The moniker of ‘gardener’, in conjuring up bucolic productivity, sweet fruits, new potatoes and buzzy bees is more accurate and if we keep banging on about it, might just take hold. Or perhaps ‘fishers’, of land, kaimoana, and people. Of course, it would help immensely if we did more gardening, and the fisheries were healthier, and if we were safer, and told more people about it in ways they can understand and appreciate, and maybe even evolve. We have much to learn in all the tinkering needed to flourish in today’s world but we’re well placed to re-indigenise humanity! As a wiser commentator than me once said “Science is the work of human beings. The only way to get close to objectivity is through intersubjectivity”. More hui I’m afraid.

Somebody ought to make a movie of all this.

Follow-up: Here's a book review on bioethics

Also this critique by Jessica Hutchings and Paul Reynolds

Crampton, P., & Parkin, C. (2007). Warrior genes and risk-taking science. Journal of the New Zealand Medical Association, 02-March-2007, Vol 120 No 1250, 120(1250). Retrieved from http://www.nzma.org.nz/journal/120-1250/2439/

Gould, S. J. (1996). The Mismeasure of Man. New York: Norton.

Lea, R., & Chambers, G. (2007). Monoamine oxidase, addiction, and the “warrior” gene hypothesis. Journal of the New Zealand Medical Association, 120(1250). Retrieved from http://www.nzma.org.nz/journal/120-1250/2441/

Levins, R., & Lewontin, R. (1985). The Dialectical Biologist. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Lewontin, R. C. (1982). Organism Environment. In H. Plotkin (Ed.), Learning, Development and Culture: Essays in Evolutionary Epistemology. Chichester: Wiley.
Merriman, T., & Cameron, V. (2007). Risk-taking: behind the warrior gene story. Journal of the New Zealand Medical Association, 120(1250). Retrieved from http://www.nzma.org.nz/journal/120-1250/2440/

Rose, S., Kamin, L., & Lewontin, R. (1984). Not in our genes: Biology, ideology and human nature. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Tudge, C. (2000). The impact of the gene. New York: Hill and Wang.
Verschuuren, G. (1995). Life scientists: Their convictions, their activities and their values. North Andover: Genesis Publishing Company.
Simon Lambert

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