I love meeting people from around the world who are taking the plastic-free challenge in a very public way. The more people do this, the easier it will become for others to get started. I especially enjoy learning about how people around the world see the issue of plastic and what challenges they face. Here is a guest post from Tina Ngata, an indigenous Māori woman living in New Zealand who calls herself “The Non-Plastic Māori.” I hope you will be as inspired by her as I am.
Here, in Aotearoa (New Zealand), we enjoy a relatively high environmental profile, for a long time coined by the phrase 100% Pure. We are the land of pure, deep lakes fed by springs, of pristine environments and virgin forests.
Here’s the thing… it’s sortakinda not true – at all.
We lag behind the OECD in our environmental policies and monitoring systems, and our current government continues to favour economic development over environmental sustainability (ignoring our state of environmental crisis). Our ecosystems are in a downward trend, and as a nation we are largely in denial over it. About 90% of our low level waterways are unswimmable, and 60% of our waterways in general are severely polluted. This is linked to a number of factors including high sediment from intensive forestry, flow disruption from hydropower, and nutrients from intensive farming, but another key contributor to this issue is toxic leachate from our landfills – landfills that are filled, largely, with reusable materials such as plastic.
So this is my town (Tūranganui a Kiwa, or Gisborne)… like most New Zealanders, I live in a coastal community (looks pretty from up here huh).
and on our city beaches, there is, without fail, plastic waste that we pick up along the way. I took one of my students with me to the beach one day and in less than 20 minutes we filled four large garbage bags with plastic waste. I can’t help but think about what birds and fish are being affected by the waste that will undoubtedly continue to gather on our beaches.
I’d heard of people going plastic free for quite some time, and to be honest I’d been considering it for a year or more. As someone who teaches about environmental sustainability, the topic of pollution is kind of hard to get away from, and I spend a decent amount of time discussing it. I’d read about Beth, and had looked at others in NZ who have gone plastic free as well (Big shout out to Merren Tait who has a fantastic blog and does a lot of great work which also inspired me to take this step).
There are, obviously, some plastics that are necessary in order for us to still function in our communities and vocalise our cause. Increasingly though, I was becoming uncomfortably aware of just how much I was consuming unnecessarily, and so started looking at what it be like to just… stop. To stop treating things that have hundreds of years of life as if they only existed for the brief time I chose to keep them in my presence. Probably what pushed me over the edge, though, was the trailer for the Chris Jordan film Midway.
The Tears of the Albatross
I had heard Beth talk about the plight of the albatross and I did know, intellectually, about this issue… but seeing the scale and detail presented in that trailer, at that moment, hit me hard… as a Pacific woman, as an environmentalist, but probably most profoundly, as a Māori.
We call the albatross “Toroa”. Toroa is revered and features in many of our songs, artwork, and genealogy. It is, without a doubt, a potent metaphor of cheiftainship. The captain of one of the great ocean canoes that brought our people to this land is named Toroa, and for many of us they are considered such an irretractable part of our world that we refer to them as our ancestors. In our ancestral meeting houses, we have woven latticework panels, called tukutuku, and a well known pattern seen on these panels is called “Roimata Toroa” – The tears of the albatross. That is all I could think of when I saw the multitudes of dead and dying Toroa on Midway – the tears of Toroa, and just as Toroa is a potent metaphor for chiefliness, to me, Toroa’s death at the hands of humankind was a potent metaphor for our demise from chiefliness.
We consider ourselves kaitieki – custodians and protectors – of this land and of the sea. For me, the manifestation of that had always meant such things as picking up the rubbish when I walked the beach or forest, even though it wasn’t mine. We acknowledge the Sky Father and Earth Mother in our ceremonies, and give thanks to the God and Goddess of the Seas when we fish, dive, and travel upon them – so for me, there has always been a sense of connection and obligation to the environment that surrounds me. I recall hearing, a long time ago, that a culture who does not personify the environment will abuse it more readily, because they can dissociate from it. I don’t know about that – it seems to me that if you were a good Christian you’d respect what God made. What I do know, though, is that in a Māori worldview, we are a part of a larger system… that the Earth, Sky, and Sea, plants, and all of the creatures, are genealogically linked and when these elements speak to us, as kaitieki, it is our obligation to respond.
Toroa spoke to me and there was no way I could not respond.
For me, resisting plastic is a move that brings me closer to the practices of my tīpuna, my ancestors, insofar as I am acknowledging my impact upon the larger system of which I am a part, and also my role as a custodian and protector, and the inherent obligations that come with that role.
Importantly – it explores the ways in which those obligations – as a kaitieki – can manifest in my purchasing and waste habits. If it influences others to do the same, in a way that ameliorates the damage visited to our ancestral elements, then alignment is made even closer. My blog name “The Non-Plastic Māori” is a culturally specific play on words – ‘Plastic Māori’ is a tongue in cheek phrase that we have long used to describe someone of Māori descent who lacks cultural authenticity. Interestingly – we have, as a people, chosen the word ‘plastic’ to describe inauthenticity, which is juxtaposed with the term Māori, which in our language means natural, or from the natural environment. We can understand, then, from looking at this term, that in a Māori worldview – that which is of the natural environment is seen as being of more value, and more authentic to who we are, than synthetic materials. This view, where nature outranks manmade – is in direct conflict to the current system, which often places greater value with the new, more technical, and often synthetic goods. “The Non-Plastic Māori” is not a slight against technology or progress per se, what it does speak to is a life approach, practiced by my ancestors, which values the natural environment, and is aware of our impact upon it.
I’ve been inspired not only by the plastic free pioneers such as Beth and Merren, but also by indigenous activists and environmentalists. The Mana o te Moana journey saw 7 great ocean going canoes that utilised sustainable modern technology, combined with ancient knowledge and practices, to travel over 36 thousand kilometers around the Pacific Ocean, carrying a message of concern from the people of the Pacific about ocean acidification and high levels of pollution. Here’s a trailer for the documentary that was made from this incredible journey – (seriously I’ve watched this clip so many times and it STILL makes me cry every time). Please do offer your support to these folks if you can, it’s an amazing thing that they’re doing.
Last year I listened to the wonderful Professor Wazayatawin at a conference on indigenous research, who acknowledged the effect of capitalist market forces and heirarchical power systems upon our environment… but also spoke about our complicitness in this process and the necessity for us to really critically examine our lifestyle choices and begin the process of divesting ourselves from those choices and behaviours.
We are all complicit in this process. And even though there is a cultural backdrop to my understanding of custodianship – we are also ALL custodians and protectors of Mother Earth. Arguably, however, indigenous cultures have lived this truth in much more recent history, and where these principles are still in practice, you will, in general, find healthier ecosystems and more biodiversity. Here’s a fantastic clip that discusses indigenous approaches to economy and environmentalism, and how more and more, indigenous approaches are being looked to for answers to how we can live more in tune with the environment around us:
For me, the return to indigenous practices is an obvious choice – Our ancestors lived a symbiotic, interdependent relationship with the world around them and because it is my own heritage, it has links not only to sustainability but also identity and cultural security.
In fact, for most who identify as Māori, having access to the ways of our ancestors is incredibly important – and yet, like the rest of New Zealand, we, too, struggle with plastic addiction and other environmentally unsustainable practices. You see, like many indigenous cultures that have experienced colonization – many of us are in survival mode. And here’s the thing about environmental conciousnessness – it will take a back seat to survival, pretty much every. single. time. I wrote about this notion in one of my most recent blog entries. In this sense – it has become incredibly important for me to walk this path in a way that is accessible and meaningful for my own communities, not just for environmental or cultural purposes but also a way that highlights the economic, communal, and physical health benefits.
There are fantastic collectives such as Para Kore who are driving sustainability programs in our Māori communities, but it is still a long process ahead of us to divest ourselves of these unnecessarily wasteful practices. Yes, preserving our cultural practices is important – and that may well be where the answers lie for all of us. But it is equally important for others to recognise that many indigenous cultures are engaged in a struggle to maintain those cultural practices, and it is an ongoing struggle that is historically characterised and exacerbated by continued governmental oppression over indigenous rights, and also challenged by an often pointblank refusal to address, or even acknowledge, the multi-generational damage delivered by the extraction of indigenous groups from their economic base.
It’s important for me to say here that while I do believe solutions lie with indigenous approaches – if we are to turn to indigenous solutions then that should come with an acknowledgement of indigenous history, and support for the restoration of indigenous rights. Anything less would be exploitative.
We are tangata whenua – people of the land – the very word whenua holds the dual meaning of land and placenta. The further we get pulled into this urban cycle of high consumption, high expense, high toxicity and environmental damage, the further away we are pulled from our universal nurturing source – and I mean that in an environmental, spiritual, geographic, and cultural sense. So as you can see, resisting plastic is not just about fighting for our environment, it is also about fighting for my people, and our way of life. By restoring the mauri (life essence) of the environment, we enhance the mauri of the people.
I’ve only recently begun the plastic-free journey. But I know already that this will be a lifelong pursuit of mine – it has, already, left an indelible mark upon my understanding of being kaitieki, and I can’t ever see myself turning back.
Mauri ora – good health to you.
Tina – The Non-Plastic Māori