Restore a forest, feed the people, teach the children — Ngāti Whātua’s vision already taking shape

Story and pix by Jan Power (EBSP) 

Overview of Māra Kai from Kepa Rd

Driving along busy Kepa Rd, concentrating on the traffic, it would be easy to miss something remarkable taking shape just over the fence. It is the genesis of Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei’s ecological restoration project that in years to come will cover most of the 33 hectares of Pourewa Valley in native forest running down to Pourewa Stream. Already a large vegetable garden has been  established on the sunny north-west slope near the road. The produce is feeding the whānau of Ngāti Whātua as well as being donated to food banks and other needy causes. 

The land was restored to Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei ownership in 2011 but it took until 2018 to negotiate the ending of a long-term lease to a pony club. Now, by way of treaty settlement, the site is being managed by Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei Reserves Board for the benefit of both the hapū and the people of Auckland, with all “reasonable” costs being funded by Auckland Council.  

Etienne Neho, Kaimahi, Māra Kai

The gardens and nursery employ 14 kaimahi (workers) from Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei Whai Maia Ltd, who plant and manage the land, flora and fauna according to Māori world view and tikanga, including planting on dates influenced by phases of the moon.  

The iwi’s long-term vision is to restore the valley’s original forest cover with native trees grown in their own nursery on site. Their target — a million native trees from a seedbank with a local (Ōrākei) whakapapa —  sounds ambitious, but already, since July 2020, a motivated team of young workers under Wendy Watts (Nursery Team Lead) has raised 300,000 small but sturdy seedlings in the sheltered, enclosed nursery adjacent to a modest, brown-stained office building.

Wendy Watts, Nursery Team Lead

A hundred or so metres along the road is the extensive māra kai (food garden) which, although es-tablished only in October 2020, is already flourishing as New Zealand’s first ethno-organic garden: “No Round-up or tanalised timber here,” says Rob Small (Curator, Māra Kai) as he shows visitors the flourishing vegetable crops ranging from kumara and puha to herbs and artichokes.

Rob Small, Māra Kai Curator

Privet, which was choking Pourewa Stream at the bottom of the valley, has been pulled out and is being used as a mulch in which mushrooms will be grown — with 1.2 tonnes expected to be har-vested this year. Possums that had established themselves in the valley, devouring the tender leaves, buds, flowers and fruit of native trees, have been largely knocked back by a vigorous trapping programme, with help from the Eastern Bays Songbird Project (Manu Tī Oriori) and volunteers.  

The iwi has formed alliances with community groups — including EBSP and Ōrākei Local Board — that have complementary aims to restore environments and nurture native flora and fauna.

Visitors and volunteers are welcome to visit the nursery and gardens. Children, the future kaitiaki of the land, are especially encouraged to take part in workshops learning how to care for land, water, plants and trees, as well as discovering how various parts of the trees are traditionally used. It’s an open invitation — not just confined to neighbouring schools. One lucky class from South Auckland even stayed the night on the marae.

Aimed at creating community connections with schools, Auckland Council’s Sustainable Schools Team organised a teachers’ cluster hosted by Ngāti Whātua at Pourewa.  Teachers were introduced to what the project is about, and what it has achieved so far, and were invited to be involved in hands-on learning opportunities. Pourewa Site Manager Dane Tumahai outlined the history of the land and the vision for the future.  Ben Sheeran from Recreation Solutions and Wyatt Dooley (Pourewa Nursery and Conservation Lead) continued the story of Pourewa Valley Development.  Leaders of other groups connected to the project shared their stories.  Nicky Elmore from Auckland Council’s Sustainable Schools Team spoke of opportunities for schools to get involved to bring about action across the groups.

Then the teachers went outside to experience practical demonstrations of projects they can do back at school to teach the principles of pest and weed eradication, native bush restoration and water quality testing:

EBSP’s project coordinator Michelle Brinsden and pest trapping expert Edward Duff demonstrated how to bait our loan traps and install them in the wooden tunnels designed to let rats and other pests enter whilst keeping domestic pets and children’s fingers out. 

Michelle Brinsden and Edward Duff demonstrate EBSP rat traps

Hazel Meadows from Auckland Council Sustainable Schools and Wai Care demonstrated how easy it is to be citizen scientists and test stream health using the 5 c’s: Clarity, Cool, Current, Critters and Clean. Wai Care kits are available from the Sustainable Schools Team.  A stream site can be registered and water quality data uploaded over time to measure ongoing stream health. 

Three members of Pourewa Restoration Group, Peter McLaughlan, Pat Northey and Sel Ar-buckle, explained how, over years of hard mahi on Wednesday and Sunday mornings, they and their supporters have made significant progress on transforming the Selwyn Bush area of the larger Pourewa Valley site from a rubbish dump choked with privet, gorse and pampas grass in-to a healthy bush area with a developing native canopy. Peter said that as a result of largely eliminating weeds as well as rats, mice and possums in Selwyn Bush, there are now fish in the stream, ornate skinks and lizards in the wood piles, and tūī, kererū and pīwakawaka are at home in more than 25 varieties of native trees that provide fruit and nectar. They hope that what has been achieved in this relatively small area will — with a lot more hard work — eventually be extended to form a greenbelt stretching from Ōrākei to Glen Innes adjacent to the Eastern Shared Path. 

Wyatt Dooley invited schools to take part in an Õrākei Local Board funded competition to collect seed pods of the Moth Plant — a notorious rampant vine whose pods, once they ripen and open, spread literally thousands of seeds on the wind. Students can cut off and bag the uno-pened pods, then count and photograph their collection to submit for the competition. There are $500 prizes to be won in four categories: pre-school, primary, intermediate and secondary.

Etienne Neho and Rob Small from Pourewa guided participants to give back by helping with weeding in the māra kai.

Our EBSP group came away totally impressed and inspired by Ngāti Whātua’s bold vision, already well under way in practice, which will transform the Ōrākei Board area of Tāmaki Makaurau.

View of Māra Kai