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Source: Department of Conservation

Te Ara Taiao, a Taranaki-based education programme teaching school children about the environment and culture around them has scaled up its work contributing to the nature ecology and mauri of the Taranaki Maunga landscape in the last few years with the support of the Department of Conservation (DOC).

Patuha maunga (known as Kaitake), one of the maunga that students learn about

In 2023, through the Taranaki Maunga Collective Redress Bill, the Crown recognised Taranaki Maunga as being a living being, and recognised the work done by Ngā Iwi o Taranaki in recent years to reactivate and strengthen their connections to their ancestral mountains. The work of Te Ara Taiao directly relates to this.

As the bill states:

“For generations, Taranaki Maunga and its surrounding ranges have been the central pillar for the iwi, hapū, and whānau of Taranaki. These maunga have long been honoured ancestors, a source of physical, cultural, and spiritual sustenance, and final resting places.”

Tane Manukonga, who works for Sustainable Taranaki – the organisation that houses the Te Ara Taiao – programme explains the programme originated when kaumatua from the Ngā Mahanga a Tairi hapū were given an opportunity to create an education programme that enabled tamariki who lived in Taranaki and on the Taranaki Maunga (mountain) landscape to know and understand from a cultural perspective the environment around them.

Tane says; “The name Te Ara Taiao means the environment pathway, they wanted tamariki to have a pathway to know and understand the environment but also it’s this connection piece that identifies a career pathway.”

Tamariki in the outdoor classroom at Omata School

Tane worked with the schools in the area of the hapū to ensure students at the local schools understood the pepeha (introduction) they were using, “That’s where I started with the schools, so that tamariki at the schools knew about the maunga, they knew about the awa (river). Some of the schools I worked with they use the awa in their pepeha but never went to see the awa. The connection with place and the connection with purpose is something you can’t do in a school classroom.”

“This is where the understanding for our cultural landscape came from that our kaumatua wanted our tamariki, Māori, Pakeha, anyone who lived on our landscape to understand. The pepeha was a no brainer to start,” says Tane.

The work to understand the cultural landscape also sits alongside initiatives to care for and understand the environment by way of activities based around a maramataka (Māori lunar calendar).

Tane says; “For instance in summer we’ve been growing a lot of kai; I’ve been teaching tamariki about kumara, we also do a lot of water testing, in autumn we’re doing seed collection, we’re doing a bit of propagation. In winter we are still testing water so we have those comparisons, we’re planting rakau (trees) in winter as well, come spring we’re back again we’re planting seeds and planting kumara tipu (runners) again.”

Seeing a kiwi footprint was a favourite talking point for Tamariki as it was discovered it after kiwi were reintroduced to the Maunga after predator species had eradicated them

Taranaki is a biodiversity hotspot which means there is a lot for students to learn about. Activities have included releasing kiwi – and learning about how to care for them in the environment by tracking them with telemetry gear – plant propagation, learning which berries manu (birds) eat, learning about the health of the water through water testing, learning about what riparian protection looks like, how artificial fertilizer can affect the waterways, and then down to the marine landscape learning about the health of the marine ecosystem.

Telemetry set used to track monitored kiwi

The boost to the programme from DOC through Jobs for Nature funding has enabled the team leading the work with tamariki and schools to grow, so more hapū are sharing their local narratives. The programme now employs five educators who each work with a different hapū or iwi to bring their knowledge of the environment to primary school aged tamariki.

Tane says; “This has been a real privilege for me personally to be able to facilitate that between schools and hapū.”

 “Our project is, in my view, the start of intergenerational behaviour change toward the environment. Our project is really a conduit of the community where they can see themselves contribute back to the health and wellbeing of the land and the people and our unique landscape.”

Te Ara Taiao works in a collaborative way bringing different groups together to facilitate learning.  Tane says; “Te Ara Taiao is just a conduit, stringing in everyone to make the spider web bright. The implementation is key, doing things together, don’t do stuff in silos.”  

On the success of the programme he says: “It’s somewhere where the hapū can see themselves now, in the environment, they can see themselves back on the landscapes, the schools know now that how they are contributing to the local community is a beautiful thing. Tamariki can now see themselves working in the environment. When I was at school, no one ever wanted to be a marine biologist, …but these opportunities that tamariki have in school now are the first step to the environment pathway.”

Water testing kit

What’s next after Jobs for Nature funding concludes?

Tane wants to future-proof the project. “There is an aspiration for people to be doing work on the maunga to eradicate the pests and to re-establish the biodiversity and to reintroduce taonga species but there is a gap where there’s no real pathway in Taranaki for tamariki to do that. What’s next for the project is going from what we’re doing in (primary) schools to high schools to universities and maintain that support for our tamariki to be the next DOC rangers. I’ve also got this aspiration that we’re going to produce environmental policy writers, that we’re going to have the next environmental lawyers… and to continue to inspire tamariki to want to work in environmental jobs.”

Tamariki gather round a fire at a Puanga celebration at Omata school where taiao korero is shared to enrich the understanding and importance of the celebration at this time of year. Puanga is celebrated around the same time as Matariki in Taranaki, as the stars of Matariki are not able to be seen.

Find out more about the Jobs for Nature – Mahi mō te Taiao, which has helped revitalise communities through nature-based employment and stimulate the economy post COVID-19.