Indigenous knowledge a path to social change?

Opinion: What could Indigenous knowledge contribute to social change and what would it mean for Māori communities? Melinda Webber and Te Kawehau Hoskins explain.

The image shows an intricate Māori carving in a meeting house: The rich opportunities, strengths and values offered by Māori have been too long overlooked while the inequities suffered are renown. Photo: iStock
The rich opportunities, strengths and values offered by Māori have been too long overlooked while the inequities suffered are renown. Photo: iStock

In a world where individualism isn’t serving our planet well, the collective strengths and values behind most Indigenous cultures and communities are beginning to be reassessed.

This change is well overdue. The rich opportunities, strengths and values offered by Indigenous peoples have been too long overlooked while the inequities suffered are renown. This is no different for Māori in Aotearoa.

But one global organisation, the Atlantic Fellows, wants to re-set this negative focus and bring social change using Indigenous knowledge and resources through its programme, Atlantic Fellows for Social Equity (AFSE).

This programme is hosted by Melbourne University and runs in partnership with the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Education and Social Work through Te Puna Wānanga. It is one of seven funded by The Atlantic Philanthropies, the grant-making organisation founded by US billionaire and “secret philanthropist” Chuck Feeney. Feeney has given more than $8 billion to charities, universities and foundations worldwide, and for many years his giving was anonymous.

The AFSE looks for applicants with potential projects that have transformative power. They must have a history of working in communities on a particular kaupapa or project and have reached a point where they need to grow the work they’re doing.

So what could this mean for Māori communities and their development?

So far there have been two Aotearoa-based cohorts appointed through the programme, with 2021 Fellows selected late last year. One of the Fellowship’s greatest benefits is that all graduates become Senior Fellows joining a community of 500, which is growing each year. Many of the AFSE projects have been developed through collaborations within this community.

The Green New Deal coming out of Auckland Council’s Southern and Western Initiatives owes its strategy to the AFSE, says Tania Pouwhare, manager of community of social initiative on the Southern Initiative. Ngāi Tūhoe from Waiohau in the Bay of Plenty, Pouwhare brought experience working in women’s rights NGOs and worked as The Southern Initiative's economic development leader while completing the programme.

She explains: “I understood the importance of creating social equity through economic means, but didn’t have a very good grip on how to do that in an environmentally sustainable way, protecting and regenerating our natural world.

“From my Fellowship sharing we began to focus on developing a circular economy, with our first flagship project a vehicle for the economic reboot of this area - a South Auckland Resource Recovery Park to divert resources bound for landfill into new and innovative products. What particularly makes this a Green New Deal is that Māori and Pasifika businesses will own it cooperatively alongside the public sector and commercial partners.”

So-called ‘green’ projects in Indigenous communities have often exploited rather than benefited local people. In 2016, the London-based Business and Human Rights Resource Centre found that out of 50 renewable energy companies only five said they’d committed to following the internationally recognised standard established in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. This prohibits resource extraction, development or other investment projects on native land without the free, prior and informed consent of the Indigenous community.

Globally, Indigenous peoples are fighting for land rights and against corporate “green-grabbing” while often experiencing the first and worst effects of climate change. It’s in their interests to want a just transition to a greener economy, but this can’t be achieved equitably when there’s an inherently unequal power dynamic between outside developers and local communities. Shifting that dynamic is essential, and the focus of many AFSE Fellows’ projects, from building capacity for self-determination in economic development to establishing national alliances leading socially and environmentally responsible land-based enterprises.

Leanne Miller, a Yorta Yorta woman of the Dhulanyagen Ulupna Clan in Australia and a 2018 Fellow, recently achieved $1.1 million in funding for the Follow the Flowers project, awarded by the Department of Agriculture as part of the Murray–Darling Basin Economic Development Program. Inspired by the Fairtrade business model, Follow the Flowers involves cooperative, Aboriginal-led farm-based businesses applying regenerative farming practices in honey, plant-based skincare products, native wildflowers, food, and linked tourism. The national network includes Indigenous groups from throughout the Murray Corridor along with their peers Noongar Land Enterprises in southwest Western Australia.

"The name Follow the Flowers shows the relationship between our honey, flower and plant businesses and the biodiversity and social outcomes we are chasing," says Miller. “We want it to create a blueprint for a national, authentic and ethical Aboriginal supply chain that brings benefits to regions, communities and the environment. These businesses operate within a context of extremely fragile environmental conditions, living with constant concerns about climate change, drought and fire, and now a pandemic that has had huge economic impacts.”

Developing young Indigenous people’s talents and potential in rapidly changing environments is essential in creating resilient futures, says Pouwhare, with the Southern Initiative now reorienting much of its youth economy work by becoming adult allies to its young, many of whom are working to fight climate change and build a better economy.

And from diversity also comes resilience. Evie O’Brien, an Aotearoa 2018 Fellow, who late last year became the Atlantic Institute’s Executive Director based at the Rhodes Trust, Oxford University, says there is a depth and breadth of diversity across the Fellows that is unprecedented. Looking through the lens of ‘we’ rather than ‘I’, these Fellows are creating unlikely alliances with the possibility of new solutions to many of the complex issues we face.

Associate Professors Te Kawehau Hoskins and Melinda Webber are from Te Puna Wānanga (the School of Māori and Indigenous Education) at the Faculty of Education and Social wWork.

This article reflects the opinion of the authors and not necessarily the views of the University of Auckland.

Used with permission from Newsroom Indigenous knowledge a path to social change? 8 February 2021.

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