Sandra Groves recently stopped by the Tairawhiti Environment Centre to catch up with the Centre Manager Rena Kohere to learn about Te Rea, the Tairāwhiti Agroecology Recovery Programme, funded through The Ministry for the Environment and Department of Conservation’s Jobs for Nature.

The idea behind Jobs for Nature is to help revitalise communities through nature-based employment and stimulate the economy post-COVID-19 on both private and public conservation land. Here in the Tairāwhiti local kaimahi are restoring their whenua, waterways and protecting native species through Te Rea. 

The programme is a collaborative venture of whānau, hapu and iwi, the Department of Conservation, Ministry for the Environment and Tairāwhiti Environment Centre and is supported by a range of government agencies, working towards catchment restoration.

Te Rea came about after an eight-week pilot funded by the COVID-19 redeployment Provincial Development Fund, with two whanau groups working in Mangatu and Ruatorea. Since October Te Rea has grown to 8 whānau/hapu teams and 62 kaimahi (workers).

Talking to Rena, the focus is on supporting whānau to undertake kaitiakitanga on their whenua and encouraging an ongoing commitment to Taiao, the environment, in our rohe. 

Many of the kaimahi are already used to working on the land, having come from other fields like forestry or farming. With the support of various specialists, kaimahi are gaining new practical skills and qualifications and increasing their knowledge of other environmental areas through a mix of both theory and hands-on experience. 

While The Environment Centre is the hub for business development support for Te Rea, ensuring funding best practice and safety, whānau set their own work plan and focus, depending on whānau and hapu aspirations for their whenua. 

The team in Ruatorea for example have a strong background in fencing, and have added pest monitoring and control to their skillset. Te Wairoa at Te Araroa started by maintaining the Project Crimson plantings at Matahi Marae and protecting a pingao population that was at risk from stock and invasive weeds. The Uawa team came with the skills and passion for water monitoring and their taonga species, the tuna, and have shared these skills with the other teams through wananga.  

Kaimahi benefit from regular wananga with each other and local experts as well as formal training and qualifications through EIT. Skill sharing is crucial and the teams have learnt from Dr Wayne Ngata about matauranga Māori and Taiao, Tina Ngata on freshwater monitoring and have had Graeme Atkins, Joe Waikari and Trudi Ngawhare from the Department of Conservation sharing knowledge about their work in the region.

Ripeka Irwin, Team Lead for the Te Wairoa Team in Te Araroa, is a big advocate for Jobs For Nature. She says that joining the programme was a far cry from working as a subcontractor for the Council doing amenity maintenance. 

She has enjoyed the variety of work and focusing on ‘what needs help’, whether it is the land, river or sea. Her introduction to Taiao mahi, or environmental work, was at Matahi Marae on the East Cape, maintaining Project Crimson plantings, shelter windbreaks of native trees, pest control and monitoring. Right now, she is at the Peka Block Awatere building a native nursery and vegetable garden which will bring an abundance of food for the community and security of supply of native species for further restoration work. 

Ripeka says it was while in lockdown last year that she realised the value of these kinds of resources and since doing this mahi her biggest learning has been to slow down, to care about the environment and appreciate what is around her. Ripeka is hoping the Jobs For Nature funding will continue, as her dream is to carry on doing this mahi and involve even more people in the community. 

Te Rea reflects the region’s demographics, with many young people getting the opportunity to work for the environment and gain skills and knowledge at the same time. 95% of the 62 kaimahi are Māori, 37 were previously unemployed, and 17 are under the age of 25. 35 of the kaimahi are completely new to this kind of work but have quickly become some of the strongest advocates for the protection and restoration of our environment. 

Rena says this is one of the reasons Te Rea pushed to get funding throughout the coast. This work is important in a region such as ours, which is so dependent on primary industry and therefore our environment. In order to grow as a region and achieve our environmental restoration goals we also need to invest in growing our people as well. Te Rea has the potential to be transformational for mana whenua as well as our Taiao and we’re looking forward to seeing the impact this incredible initiative will have well into the future. 

The 8 teams are: 

Te Wairoa at Te Araroa

 Ruatorea with Hikurangi Enterprises

Taniwha Connections at Uawa

Whaia Titirangi at Titirangi Maunga with Ngati Oneone

Te Ao Tipu at Tarere Marae, Makauri

Maungarongo at Matawhero with Nga Uri o Te Kooti

Mangatu with Nga Ariki Kaiputahi 

Te Mahia with Rongomaiwahine Iwi Trust

Story by Sandra Groves

Images Supplied by Te Rea

Lofty Mountians

Whāia te iti Kahurangi, ki te tūohu koe me he maunga teitei’ 

‘Strive to succeed, and should you bow your head, let it be to a lofty mountain’,”

Of the many kōrero tied to Titirangi, this Whakataukī was chosen to be the guiding sentiment of Whāia Titirangi – a restoration operation unfurling on one of Gisborne’s most loved sites.

The pūrākau tells of Tawhito, descended from Taiau and Tamahinengaro, who lived on Titirangi maunga. He enchanted the beautiful Te Aoputaputa of Te Whakatohea, who was overcome by the desire to be with her love. She decided to leave Opotiki, but her father was worried about the long and arduous journey ahead of her. He gave her a mantra for when she felt like she couldn’t go on – ‘Whāia te iti Kahurangi, ki te tūohu koe me he maunga teitei’. This sentiment is used today “to encourage young people to strive for excellence in all their pursuits”, and be relentless until they achieve them, says Whāia Titirangi project manager Ranell Nikora.

When urgent actioned was needed to address the unruly pest-plant growth on the maunga, Whāia Titirangi was the answer. Whāia Titirangi is a strategic plan committed to the comprehensive and continuous management of Titirangi, that integrates both the Gisborne District Council and Ngāti Oneone. 

Two young women have contributed to a mountain of changes through Whāia Titirangi. The programme is spearheaded by Jordan Tibble and Mihikura Te Pairi, who have been elected as the operational cadets. The cadet programme was born out of the desire to build capacity for kaitiakitanga, to give young people the skills to be the future guardians of the whenua. Energetic, passionate and not afraid of hard work, these two wahine fit the bill. Guided by the knowledge of senior staff and the Biosecurity team, a large part of Mihi and Jordan’s work involves weed management, but they also find time to lead group planting sessions and manage the Whāia Titirangi social media. 

It is hard hard mahi, often involving exhausting physical work and long hours, but Jordan and Mihi are proud to do it for their whenua and their iwi. The Whakataukī, shortened to ‘lofty mountains’ comes in handy on hard days, as it reminds them to keep going. For such active cadets, they find the hardest part of their work to be the hours spent indoors in the office.

Ranell is adamant that the stance for the cadet programme is not ‘what can we get out of our workers’, but ‘what can we do for them’, a perspective which bolsters their holistic development. She has always been supportive of the cadets’ other interests and pursuits and insists that investing in their well-being leads to happier, healthier, more fulfilled people. Jordan and Mihi explain that from an employee perspective, they also feel looked after. With a strong emphasis on the cadets’ professional development, the cadets have received vocational training such as drivers licencing, first aid and chemical handling.

After delivering a season of planting sessions, often for large audiences, they have found themselves more confident speakers and have grown socially, appreciative of the new relationships gained. The cadets also undergo a thorough cultural education, with regular wananga covering topics such as the Titirangi Maunga korero, whakapapa, tikanga and kawa. This understanding is integral to the role of kaitiaki and nurturing the spiritual connection to the maunga. 

Community education and passing on Māoritanga is a key component of public planting days. Jordan and Mihi have been praised for their role as advocates for celebrating Māori knowledge and perspectives, and sharing the unique story of the land. Many new feet have been introduced to Titirangi soil; there have been regular public planting days and korero about the maunga flora and fauna for volunteers, council, learning institutions and schools. 

It is easy to grasp the impression that Jordan and Mihi have left on their people, with tamariki including them as characters in their stories at school. For Ranell, putting Jordan and Mihi in visible positions of leadership is key in challenging the typical ideal of ‘success’, and showing the young people of Gisborne that people who look, speak, act and think like them can be leaders too. 

Titirangi has undergone a drastic transformation since the Whāia Titrirangi team began their work in October last year (2018). The threat of weeds has dwindled, and the roadside and main amenity areas look like they’ve been given a bit of TLC. It is estimated that under the programme, 5500 new natives will be planted on Titirangi this season. Truly built from the work of many different hands, the native trees used for plantings days are the fruits of labour of The Women’s Native Tree Project. Since Whāia Titirangi’s inception, The Project has generously donated upwards of 450 trees and provided a nursery space to foster new seeds sourced from Titirangi. 

With the maunga’s new look, Whāia Titirangi is noted to be “the most successful and cohesive programme in maintaining the reserve” and being of such unique structure, it has already caught attention from afar as a model of iwi-council partnership. 

The continuation of funding would see a weed-free, pest-free, ecologically enhanced Titirangi. Hopefully, the replenishment of forest will welcome the return of more native birds and reptiles, and we could even expect community fruit and vegetable crops to appear. 

Ranell knows the cadets won’t be here forever, and they might not need to be – Whāia Titirangi has been responsible for passing on a healthy legacy of kaitiakitanga, aiming to inspire the current and future generations beyond that to be the new ‘cadets’ of the maunga.  Ranell wants to see the operation expand, taking on more cadets as kaitiaki with Titirangi as their training ground– who can then spread their skills around the East Cape region where our biodiversity needs it most. Thanks to the work of Ranell, Jordan, Mihi, and the Whāia Titirangi team, Titirangi has been a site of growth – not of just plants, but people and passion as well.

Story by Lauren Turner.
Photographs by Tom Teutenberg.