Previous PageTable Of ContentsNext Page

Engaging Maori in research about land: some challenges to achieving acceptable outcomes for both Maori and a crown agency

Orewa Barrett-Ohia

AgResearch Ltd., Ruakura Research Centre, Private Bag 3123, Hamilton, New Zealand. Email


Maori agricultural business is an integral and significant part of the NZ primary industry sector. Some farms in multiple-ownership are performing well, but in many instances, productivity is well below the national average and benefits to farming members are scarce. Maori authorities face the challenge of achieving sustainable potential from their lands in order to return benefits to their shareholders and to secure a future for successive generations.

There are scientific and technical skills and expertise within crown entities that could assist Maori to develop their land assets in order that they become a strong and continuing economic driver to improve social wellbeing. In 2003 there was only a small number of Maori land authorities accessing such assistance and as part of addressing this at AgResearch New Zealand Ltd. appointments were made specifically to fill a capability gap with regard to increasing Maori capability in science and business.

Maori authorities, scientists and academics do not always see things the same way. This tension is accentuated when science is used to legitimise Western perspectives and approaches over ‘kaupapa Maori’ methodology. This can result in conflicting agendas; the Western science paradigm with its criteria for what is valid knowledge and the kaupapa Maori agenda of ‘tino rangatiratanga’ or Maori self determination.

This paper describes some of the challenges for a researcher using a kaupapa Maori approach, together with qualitative research methods, to engage Maori land trusts and Incorporations in face to face interviews and discussions about how they manage their farms and related business affairs.

Three key learnings: (1) there are particular challenges for researchers in engaging indigenous people, related to Maori land loss and alienation and distrust about research; (2) the researcher needs to develop a relationship prior to starting the research process and to remain cognisant of Maori local protocols; and (3) the complementarity of kaupapa Maori methods with ‘farmer first’ extension activities could assist scientists to appreciate ‘other’ knowledge sources.

Key Words

Kaupapa Maori, qualitative research, participatory action research, (PAR)


The research topic and context out of which lessons have been taken and challenges described for this paper is around ‘multiple owned Maori land’. In particular the researcher was tasked with designing and undertaking research to define the important elements that will lead to Maori economic authorities achieving alignment between the goals of the land owners and on-farm practice.

Engaging with Maori about an asset as precious to them as land raises a number of challenges. In 1984, for example, Dr. Mason Durie in his presentation to the Maori Economic Summit, placed a challenge before those engaged in Maori development when he said:

“Maori progress, whether in commerce, education, or science, could not be accomplished without taking cognisance of Maori values, the realities of modern Maori experience, the ability to retain Maori identity and to formulate development according to Maori aspirations”

The challenge is particularly poignant for the Maori researcher working out of a science research company because the legitimacy of Western science and management tends to marginalise the legitimacy of ‘other’ world views. There are, however, many opportunities in New Zealand for both CRIs (Crown Research Institutes) and Maori working together to challenge, collaborate, respect and validate the ‘others’ way of being and seeing the world. Some of the challenges are described in this paper.


In 2003 AgResearch New Zealand Ltd. sought to fill a capability gap with regard to Maori science and business. Government, aiming to accelerate Maori economic development, required crown entities such as AgResearch to contribute to this growth through fulfilling Treaty of Waitangi obligations and partnering in Foundation for Research, Science and Technology programmes. There are scientific and technical skills and expertise within crown entities that could help Maori to develop their land assets in order that they become a strong and continuing economic driver to improve social wellbeing.

It was anticipated that Maori appointments within CRIs would strengthen the dialogue between Maori and the science community and improve the understanding of cross cultural challenges that new technologies bring to Maori through community based research. It could also assist to confirm the potential (for working together??) to both Maori and CRIs – and it was in the operationalisation of these intentions that a number of challenges arose.

First challenge. The researchers’ values and methodological approach?

The research method is described as ‘kaupapa Maori research’. Kaupapa Maori research methodology is the collection of assumptions about research that informs the process of inquiry and hence determines the methods used. It is the philosophical basis used by the researcher to guide research (Cram, 1995). In practice this means that it is Māori centred and underpinned by the principles of reciprocity (manaakitanga), chiefly thought and behaviour (whakaaro rangatira), acknowledged land owners (mana whenua), unity of thought and action ( kotahitanga), stewardship(kaitiakitanga), things of value (taonga) and self determination (tino rangatiratanga).

Kaupapa Maori is an holistic approach that leaves ‘whole’ that which was ‘whole’ when the researcher arrived (Durie 1984). Dr Mason Durie likens the Maori holistic view of the universe to the four corner posts of a house (see Figure 1). Should one post weaken and crumble, then the whole house is at risk.

Smith (2003, p. 306) likens the difference between kaupapa Maori research concerned with rebuilding Maori society and western research concerned with deductive analysis, to the story of Humpty Dumpty in that, having fallen and been shattered into pieces he could not be ‘put back together again’. A common view held by Maori about the ‘scientific reductionist approach’ is that it is good at reducing things to smaller and smaller parts but not so good at making it whole again.

Figure 1: My house has four corner posts. Should one crumble then the whole house is at risk (Translation of Maori proverb illustrated)

The cornerstones in represent spiritual well being, emotional/mental well being, physical well being and family/community well being. In recent years economic well being has been added to this holistic model in appreciation that economic development and wealth have a significant bearing on whanau wellbeing (Figure 1). At AgResearch we believe that with good governance and land management, Maori potential for greater wealth lies in the whenua (land) they already own.

One of the roles of the kaupapa Maori researcher is to assist the company to achieve research and business relationships built on mutual respect, mutual benefit and integrity. In research this requires transparent and clear intentions to those they are engaged with, and ensuring benefit is returned to participants from their involvement.

Kaupapa Maori researchers favour an initial ‘hui’ (traditional meeting) forum to discuss and negotiate the terms of a piece of research. As much as possible they seek the full involvement of a group or community and prefer to wait for or renegotiate the research to be sure it reflects the aspirations of the participants. Face to face interviews may follow from the initial meetings. Taking an action research approach (Whyte 1991) the researcher works with participants and brings them in direct contact with scientists and technicians from the company in the spirit of ‘waananga’ a knowledge transfer and knowledge sharing learning event, to build a picture of hope and possibilities.

Second Challenge. Who is leading the research?

There are some Maori who would wish to have researchers from their own hapu or tribe engaged in research about them and this requires the researcher to ask the question “Am I the right person for this study”. Until capability is available within each tribe it is incumbent on the kaupapa Maori researcher to employ the least intrusive approaches and to apply methods that are empowering and affirming for those who participate. Importantly this includes time for initial visits and introductions to take place and as to enlist the guidance of a local reference person or a key influence associated with the agency of interest. As part of this a kaupapa Maori researcher should become familiar with the context in which the research is to be undertaken including the tribal demographic of whanau (extended family), hapu (sub tribal network) and iwi (major tribal group).

The research achieves integrity by showing integrity. This comes from building enduring relationships with potential participants, meeting with them and together planning the research project, questions and process, checking that the research will benefit those involved and that the research results will be made available to them. Chambers, Pacey and Thrupp (1989) describe this approach as ‘Farmers First’ in which the skills and experience s of farmers are drawn on to ensure that research is based on their real problems. Maori need to choose to be involved. They need also to be able to commit to the full duration of the data collection process..

Third Challenge. Perceptions of CRI, science, research.

Initial discussions with Maori about AgResearch and the role of their Maori employees revealed some negative perceptions about the company, science in general, and highlighted lingering questions about the transparency of research agendas. The degree to which past research has misrepresented Maori understandings and ways of knowing have been well documented (Bishop, 1994; Cunningham, 1998, p.395; Irwin, 1994). Of greater concern, however, was the kind of science being conducted within the company with respect to the warnings reported by Dr. Linda Smith, in which she described ten different ways that scientific and technological advances were placing indigenous and other marginalised peoples at extreme risk (Smith, 1999, p 100).

The uncertainty around the long term consequences of well-publicised genetic engineering activity and transgenics experiments had Maori questioning the integrity of activities with which the company was associated. A growing awareness about the negative impacts from agriculture on the water quality of the lakes and waterways added to the list of concerns by Maori. For several months these negative perceptions proved to be a barrier to research engaging Maori, in spite of the researcher’s previous networks: for some time these were an obstacle to progressing the company goal of working more closely with Maori.

A number of events have occurred both internally within the organisation and externally over the past three years to influence a change in public views about science. Social Science research undertaken by Bruce Small (2005) indicates a softening of negative public perceptions about genetic engineering and this appears to is be the same for Maori according to views expressed in Maori media and at hui (gatherings, discussion groups, councils). In 2005 Dr. Linda Smith presented a very different finding from that described in her book entitled Decolonising Methodologies (1999). In her summary speech to the World Indigenous Peoples Conference on Education in Hamilton, Smith declared that Maori today no longer see themselves as victims of Western ways. The message from their youth is:

“Been there, done that and moving on!”

In part this is due to the return to Maori ownership of land, fish and forest assets by the crown. The return of these significant assets to Maori ownership signalled the beginning of a new relationship between CRIs and Maori based on the opportunities to both parties from negotiated relationships of mutual benefit in which Maori landowners might access the research and science needed to advance their commercial aspirations.

From the challenges of 2003 there is a greater willingness by Maori in 2006 to look beyond past experiences to the future, to the opportunities that the return of assets (natural resources including land) brings which might well include harnessing CRI expertise in research, science and technology. It is a supportive and vibrant environment in which both Maori researcher and company alike are fast moving towards attaining significant and mutually beneficial outcomes.

This has not come without sustained effort on the part of management and staff both Maori and non-Maori, within the company. Some major initiatives have been planned and signed off, including an increase in Maori staff and capability within the company. The Maori Forum and management team together are putting in place the building blocks to assist Maori to realise their economic aspirations.

Fourth challenge. Time and whanau space.

The time required to build trust, clarify issues and negotiate involvement can take longer than anticipated and this can cause problems in CRIs for managers and researcher. The length of time required often depends on the nature of the information and knowledge being sought by the outside researcher. For example, if a group of farmers initiates research of a technical or scientific nature to improve their business, the process is likely to progress more quickly than if it were a social science research project initiated outside their group and looks into their behaviour, choices and decisions. Such research would be seen as probing into their ‘personal whanau’ space. If tikanga (protocols of respect) are not observed either formally or informally as a prelude to the social science data collection phase then the research is in danger of being seen as an ‘audit’ akin to probing into their affairs. The application of qualitative research approaches, understanding of tikanga Maori and monitoring by Maori representatives of the research from inception to conclusion could improve CRI and Maori relationships, but the there is still a challenge for the researcher to be able to meet funder deadlines.

Fifth challenge: Multiple owned Maori land

By their very nature, multiple owned Maori lands are a challenge to mainstream systems more accustomed historically and culturally to doing business with non Maori and holders of individual land title. The challenge for Maori is in choosing the most relevant governance structure and skill set from potential board members in order to uphold the cultural imperative of protecting and preserving their lands for future generations, the economic imperative of bringing benefit to shareholders from increased productivity and achieving alignment between owner’s goals and on farm practice.

The ever expanding shareholder base is an ongoing challenge, with each new generation increasing the likelihood of multiple and conflicting objectives. Many Maori leaders believe that government legislation has led to Maori authorities having to provide evidence of superior management abilities and security of cash-flow. Banks want a name they can attach responsibility to when things don’t work out. Without finance an organization is limited in its ability to purchase good commercial expertise and establish its legal capacity.

Cultural factors (relating to genealogical descent) are seen by the business and commercial sectors as a constraint because ownership interests cannot be traded.

Maori affinity with the land isvery strong, especially with regard to kaitiakitanga (stewardship) and caring for the environment. These are factors that may prevent Maori from pursuing certain commercial options. For example, pine trees are not native to Aotearoa New Zealand and can potentially alter the natural landscape beyond recognition. For this reason this is an option that may be negatively perceived by Maori. This raises the question ‘what is success?’, and the answer to this is one that needs to be identified by all stakeholders as part of the research.


This paper set out to describe some of the challenges for a researcher using a kaupapa Maori methodology comprising qualitative research methods to engage Maori land trusts and Incorporations in face to face interviews and discussions about how they manage their farms and related business affairs. There were particular challenges for the researcher in engaging indigenous (Maori). There was a need for support from within the organisation and a willingness by non Maori staff to acknowledge Maori process and protocol as valid. Through the application of social science ‘Farmers First’ and bottom up approaches that compliment the kaupapa Maori approach, there is scope for the company to better demonstrate their willingness to engage on equal terms with Maori and to achieve an acceptance of the value to science of ‘other’ world views that although different they are but equally valid.


AgResearch (2003). AgInitiative Maori Reinvestment. AgResearch New Zealand Ltd. Unpublished report.

Chambers R, Pacey A and Thrupp L A (eds) (1989). Farmer First Innovation and Agricultural Research. Intermediate Technology Publications, London, UK.

Cunningham C (1998). A framework for addressing Maori knowledge in research, science and technology. Proceedings of Te Oru Rangahau Maori Research and Development Conference. New Zealand.

Durie M (1994). Whaiora. Maori Health development. Oxford University Press, Auckland.

Mead H (2003). Tikanga Maori living by Maori value. Huia Publishers, Wellington

Scones T (1994). Beyond Farmer First Rural peoples Knowledge. Intermediate Technology Publications, London, UK.

Small B (2005). Genetic engineering: New Zealand public attitudes 2001, 2003 and 2005. Proceedings of the Talking Biotechnology Conference: Reflecting on Science in Society. Published on CDROM. 29 Nov. – 2 Dec. 2005. Wellington, New Zealand.

Smith L T (1999). Decolonising methodologies, research and indigenous peoples. University of Otago Press, Dunedin, New Zealand.

Previous PageTop Of PageNext Page