Kepa Morgan: Heeding the taniwha can help avert expensive blunders

The concerns raised by Ngati Whatua may contribute to an improved design for the downtown rail link. Photo / Sarah Ivey, Sculpture by Martin Tissink
The concerns raised by Ngati Whatua may contribute to an improved design for the downtown rail link. Photo / Sarah Ivey, Sculpture by Martin Tissink

Two cases show that indigenous wisdom could be linked to unknown factors, writes Dr Kepa Morgan, senior lecturer in civil and environmental engineering at Auckland University.

Attempts to sensationalise the taniwha issue raised by Glen Wilcox should be condemned.

A Herald article on the Auckland Council's Maori Statutory Board warning to planners about the taniwha who lived in an ancient creek running past the Town Hall and down Queen St, was deemed significant enough to warrant front-page attention.

It seems there should be great concern that Ngati Whatua are raising issues informed by their cultural knowledge and values.

Has the possibility been considered that the concerns raised by Ngati Whatua may contribute to an improved design for the downtown rail link?

What these concerns relate to is unclear but one would have to assume they relate to fears that the Maori Statutory Board may expect to participate in other decision-making if allowed to influence the design process for this project.

So why shouldn't Ngati Whatua be asking Auckland's transport committee to give consideration to the taniwha?

It is suggested that in the past Maori have dredged up myths of taniwha in other places with the sole intention of frustrating the progress of projects.

Examples offered include Karu Tahi stopping construction on State Highway 1 near Meremere and causing the road to be rerouted, and the protests at the Ngawha prison site near Kaikohe.

It is of relevance to consider what has happened subsequently in each of these cases.

The indigenous wisdom of Ngati Naho states that Karu Tahi lives in the boggy marsh which would have been encroached upon by construction of the state highway when the Waikato River floods (Herald, November 9, 2002).

In February 2004, about 14 months after the state highway construction was complete, unseasonal wet weather caused flooding of the Waikato River which would have threatened the integrity of the original highway batter design.

Fortunately the redesigned section, which accommodated the Ngati Naho concerns and avoided encroaching on the swamp - an integral part of the flood plain - remained intact, avoiding what could have been potentially costly flood repairs.

In the case of the Ngawha Prison, the taniwha is the log Takauere.

Professor Patu Hohepa (Waitangi Tribunal) considers taniwha to be esoteric minders, protectors of important places, which then have their importance enhanced by the presence of taniwha.

At Ngawha, the prison construction continued without change, despite similar opposition to the project that was experienced in the Karu Tahi example.

Following completion of the prison complex issues arose regarding foundation instability.

These had been noted by workers during construction. In 2007, the Government admitted the prison (which cost $137 million - $100 million more than the original project estimate), was sinking into the ground and required repairs.

In conclusion, it is suggested that taniwha be considered as manifestations of complex phenomena that are not well understood within the narrow constraints of many people's reasoning.

In the case of Karu Tahi, the perils of constructing on flood plains are very real to engineers but in this case, before the intervention of Ngati Naho, a potential risk seems to have been overlooked.

In the case of Ngawha, quite possibly the ground instability was a known manifestation of that area associated with the taniwha in indigenous wisdom.

If the initiative had allowed a more thorough investigation of tangata whenua concerns, it is possible the current situation may have been avoided.

The point is not whether the engineers in either case could have done a better job, but rather that developments are not always appropriate everywhere that they are proposed.

And that in most cases the information that engineers are relying on to make decisions is incomplete and fallible.

Therefore it is prudent to take into account all sources of knowledge, rather than assuming that a poorly informed mono-cultural understanding of an issue is the only one that really matters.

Assumption is often the father of ignorance.

- NZ Herald

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