Post-tragedy rāhui raises questions (which media prefer not to ask) about what it means

Whether tourists should have been allowed to visit Whakaari-White Island in the past and whether tourists should be allowed to visit in future are among the questions inevitably raised in the aftermath of the tragic volcanic eruption this week.

Concerns have extended beyond the operations of White Island Tours, which is owned by Ngāti Awa Holdings, to all adventure tourism.

The effects of the prohibition imposed in the form of a rāhui – does this amount to a ban on tourism, what authority does it have and for how long will it remain in place? – seem to have have gone unquestioned.

The rāhui ceremony was performed by Whakatane District Council pou tikanga Pouroto Ngaropo.

According to a Newsroom report, Ngaropo said the rāhui covers the island and the waters around it.

The report did not mention a time frame.

It did suggest a rāhui is much more potent than a council sign that says:  “Danger – keep out” or “Trespassers will be prosecuted”.

Ngaropo declared:

“The rāhui is going to protect the island, the ocean, those who are there, their families and all those who are carrying out important work at the moment.”

Earlier this year, a Northland hapu declared a rāhui on the popular Mermaid Pools – but then it urged visitors to visit Matapouri to enjoy other attractions in the area.

According to the New Zealand Herald:

The Te Whanau ā Rangiwhakaahu hapū imposed the rāhui over the popular pools at the northern headland of Matapouri and the access route over the Rangitapu headland to restore their environment, cultural and spiritual wellbeing.

A ceremony took place at Matapouri Beach at 5am yesterday to bless and dedicate a carved pou before those present went to the local marae to conclude the formalities.

The picturesque, turquoise tidal rock pools are enormously popular and draw hundreds of people in a day during long weekends and holidays.

Environmentalists, community groups, civic leaders and the local hapū have long been concerned about the degraded state of the pools and the condition of the track.

Issues include no provision of basic infrastructure like a proper track, toilets or rubbish disposal facilities and all these will have to be addressed going forward, the hapu said.

An article in The Spinoff describes a rāhui as a form of Māori environmental management utilised by rangatira to modify human behaviour and engagement for the purpose of protecting people and taonga.

The article was headed Why aren’t people listening? Māori scientists on why rāhui are important.

But a rāhui extends beyond the boundaries of science to incorporate spiritual concepts (some would say superstition).

A rāhui encompasses both the physical and metaphysical realms and is often designated as esoteric by Western culture. According to the Māori worldview, people and the environment co-exist, and all things (biotic and abiotic) are part of an interconnected system which harmonises tapu and mana to create ‘balance’. When this system comes under stress or pressure a shift occurs, resulting in nature and/or people moving towards a state of disease and disharmony. Rangatira exercising their right as mana whenua and kaitiaki consider the impacts and employ appropriate measures, like rāhui, to restrict human behaviour and activity. This restriction allows nature time to re-establish balance, or its natural or desired state.

A rāhui may be placed on forests, gardens, food gathering areas, rivers, lakes or the sea, and may be placed for a variety of reasons such as claiming ownership, respecting the site of a recent death, the need to replenish food stocks or resources in an area, or to prevent the risk or spread of disease. For example, a rāhui was placed on the taking of seafood in areas that may have been contaminated by oil spilled from the Rena.

The article in The Spinoff proceeded to explain why it is not enough for a local authority or government agency to simply impose a ban or prohibition:

The power of a rāhui comes from the mana of the person or group that impose it. For that reason, rāhui can only exist under the mantle of the mana whenua, whose cultural authority as rangatira and kaitiaki affords them power over place and people, and the authority to restrict access in the protection of people, place and nature, until such time that balance is reached or the risks have been mitigated. Pre-colonisation, the infringement of a rāhui could be considered sufficient enough to give rise to war between tribes, or was punishable by death.

The policing of a rāhui, nevertheless, seems likely to be more effective if government agencies are involved.

The Spinoff article was prompted by concerns that the Auckland Council had not supported the rāhui placed by Te Kawarau-a-Maki , the local iwi, to stop the spread of kauri dieback in the Waitakere Forest.

 Was it because they did not fully understand the concept of a rāhui, or was it because they did not, and do not understand their Treaty obligations?

The council eventually did impose a ban but didn’t rush to enforce it.

A year ago the Ministry for Primary Industries had received no notice from the council to prosecute people who were ignoring track closures in the Waitākere Ranges.

A new audit compiled by the Waitākere Rāhui team has revealed serious shortcomings in the Auckland Council’s attempts to fight the disease.

The council threw its support behind a rāhui, or closure, of the forest in May and a formal process called a Controlled Area Notice is in place to allow for strict biosecurity measures.

But the audit found 14 tracks that were open but should be closed and also evidence of people skirting around barriers on closed tracks.

It has recommended removing out-of-date signage and using covert security cameras at places where informal tracks are present.

Waitākere Rangers Protection Society president John Edgar said MPI should prosecute those who were not abiding the Controlled Area Notice (CAN).

Last month a hiker became the first person to be charged with walking on closed tracks in the Waitakere ranges.

The Auckland mayor, Phil Goff, said the hiker walked on the closed tracks three times in the past five months and a stern response was needed to deter others from behaviour that threatened the survival of one of the country’s most precious native trees – sacred to its Indigenous people and prized for its beauty, strength and use in boats, carvings and buildings.

Each breach carries a separate maximum penalty of $20,000.

The case will head to the courts in January.

At the time of the charging of the hiker, Auckland council had issued 49 trespass notices in the previous  six months.

Whatever a prohibition is called, it is meaningless to most people if it is not policed.




One thought on “Post-tragedy rāhui raises questions (which media prefer not to ask) about what it means

  1. It is a tragedy a rahui was not put in place after Geonet reportedly raised the eruption alert level a couple of weeks ago. Were the religious authorities sleeping on the job? Or would a revenue stream have been interrupted? No doubt it will all play out in court.


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