Continued environmental degradation necessitates people working together to improve both environmental and human wellbeing. But collaboration between groups can be difficult because of the different values people hold. The aim of this research was to understand the values that different groups hold in their engagement with wetlands. We were particularly interested in relational values, i.e. those values that people describe in relation to nature and others.
We interviewed members of two groups that manage and use wetlands: the Indigenous peoples of New Zealand (NZ), Māori, and landowners who manage land in major wetland catchments. In addition to understanding their values and what barriers they face in fulfilling these values, we identified what factors might facilitate kaitiakitanga (Māori environmental guardianship). Interviews revealed possible common ground in relational values, including attachment to local wetlands and wishing to care for them. However, differences were found in how groups prioritised certain values over others when making decisions about wetlands. Māori prioritised kaitiakitanga, that is, their responsibilities in protecting wetland health, ahead of using wetlands for harvesting customary foods. Landowners prioritised using wetlands for economic benefit despite their commitment towards wetland health. Both groups reported multiple factors preventing them from taking environmental action, including lack of resources (e.g. funding), community management practices (e.g. water abstraction), and government policies that hinder wetland care. Māori in particular felt hindered in their cultural expression by not having wetland access through private land.
This research suggests that dialogue based on shared relational values may help to diffuse existing conflict and build trust between groups, and encourage the integration of diverse knowledge systems to solve complex environmental issues.
Moreover, there is a need to address barriers to encourage collaboration between groups to protect wetlands. Importantly, fostering environmental justice requires not only addressing barriers on individual and community levels, but also at a policy level. Indeed, NZ legislation, policies, and structures based largely on Western values must transform to better represent Indigenous values and uphold Indigenous peoples’ rights and responsibilities towards the environment.