Climate study linking early Maori fires to Antarctic changes sparks controversy

Photograph: Krys Bailey/Alamy Stock Photo

Deep in the ice of a remote Antarctic peninsula, a group of researchers found evidence that fires started by early Māori wreaked changes in the atmosphere detectable 7,000km away. In New Zealand, the research sparked a heated controversy of its own – over Indigenous inclusion in scientific enterprise, and what scientists owe the people whose history becomes a subject of their research.

The research, published this month, examined ice cores from the Antarctic peninsula. Scientists found high concentrations of black carbon, dating back 700 years. Atmospheric modelling narrowed the possible sources to New Zealand, Patagonia or Tasmania – but only in New Zealand did charcoal records match the timeframe. The deposits coincided with Māori arrival in New Zealand, and showed downstream effects of Māori using fire to clear the land.

The finding was unexpected, says Prof Joe McConnell of the Desert Research Institute, who led the study. “What really surprised us about this was that it appeared to be human activities that made such a big impact,” McConnell says. “It really emphasises how interconnected the planet is – that even early people arriving in New Zealand could have a noticeable effect on atmospheric chemistry 7,000km away is really quite a surprising finding.”

Related: Pygmy pipehorse discovered in New Zealand given Māori name in ‘world first’

New Zealand doesn’t have a natural cycle of burning, and its plants are less fire adapted, McConnell said. “So when humans brought fire to the landscape, it had a pretty dramatic change.”

While the emissions were small compared with many current-day fires, he said, they were notable coming from a small island. “If you compare it to what’s coming out of the Amazon [burning] now, for instance, it’s small by comparison,” McConnell said. “What was surprising to us was that New Zealand’s got a relatively small land area, and the emissions for such a small land area were pretty large.”

Also surprising was how emissions from Māori arrivals compared with subsequent European ones. “The burning emissions from New Zealand were comparable in the 16th century to what they were soon after European arrival in New Zealand,” McConnell says. “So we were surprised – we expected to see more of an impact from European arrival. And we did not.”

The team published the article in Nature, one of the world’s most prominent scientific journals. But the reception in New Zealand was mixed, with several Māori academics raising concerns that it did not have Māori members of its research team.

Dr Priscilla Wehi, director of Te Pūnaha Matatini research centre, said via Science Media Centre the finding was “scientifically spectacular” but raised concerns about “helicopter science, where research is led and conducted by those who live and work far from the subject of their work”.

“How much better could this have been, were it more inclusive in its approach?” she asked.

Associate prof Sandy Morrison of the University of Waikato called the paper “devoid of context, devoid of cultural understandings”. “It reeks of scientific arrogance with its implicit assumption that somehow Māori have a lot to account for in terms of contributing to carbon emissions.”

Morrison told the Guardian she had been shocked by the paper, which did not collaborate with Māori researchers. “Surely you want to check and just examine the context before you go writing around people,” she said.

“You come so far in terms of working alongside scientists in New Zealand and then you get [this] from the international ones.”

Over the past two years, there has been increased discussion and controversy over mātauranga Māori – Indigenous knowledge systems – and their role within the sciences in New Zealand. The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, which funds much of the country’s scientific research, unveiled Vision Mātauranga about 10 years ago. Its principles would be embedded across all the ministry’s priority investment areas. In practice, that meant crown-funded research had to include partnerships and consultation with Māori, as well as a broader re-orientation to integrate Māori knowledge into research and learning. More recently, changes were proposed to New Zealand’s curriculum to give parity to mātauranga Māori with other bodies of knowledge.

“For a long time Māori had been talking about [the fact] that we will do our own research – and at minimum, that a relationship with us … should be cultivated way before anybody wants to write about us,” Morrison said. “That seems to have caught on in the New Zealand research scene, but not so much internationally.”

The paper’s authors, none of whom were from New Zealand, were taken by surprise at the backlash.

“I was definitely surprised,” McConnell says. “We didn’t start out in any way, shape, or form, to investigate the impact of Māori-related burning and we’re not trying to criticise or in any way, shape, or form Māori stewardship of the land.” No one had disputed the paper’s findings on the black carbon, he said.

“This idea of helicopter science – our research is not based in New Zealand … it’s based in Antarctica, and there are no indigenous inhabitants in Antarctica. So, I don’t think we would have done that any differently,” he said.

“In the scientific world [and] the scientific method, the response would be: if someone disagrees with our findings, they should write a paper and get it through peer review, or comment, and tell us what we did that was wrong … Whoever has the most solid arguments is who moves forward. That’s what the scientific method is all about. But this is not a science debate, I don’t think.”

Dr Dan Hikuroa, senior lecturer at the University of Auckland, said “It’s not that the science is wrong. It’s just that the findings could have been richer.”

“The science looks to be repeatable, rigorous and pretty standup,” he said. “I think it’s the broader context – which much of the science community is now recognising. That although one of the hallmarks and pillars or the strength of science is that it does operate to produce knowledge, it actually operates within a social system.” That awareness, Hikuroa says “is really missed here”.

Related: ‘A neat trick’: critics aim to shift Aotearoa debate, but historical fidelity no longer matters

The integration of mātauranga Māori, he says, can make scientific findings stronger – and increase the diversity of scientific teams. He points to other research, also profiled in Nature, which used mātauranga Māori documentation of groundwater and plant life to document historic groundwater flows to assess the risk of future contamination.

“There’s more than one way of knowing and being and making sense of the world that we could draw from and use when we’re trying to make important decisions – including the way we conduct our research, the kind of teams we build, the kinds of the questions we ask, and the ways we seek to answer those questions,” he says.

“The argument that says, ‘I’m a certain scientist that does things a certain way, so therefore I don’t have to consider these things’ is not holding up as well as it used to.”

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