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Ancient Wisdom, modern methods: Enhancing marae resilience

Sir Āpirana Ngata Memorial Scholarship recipient Haukapuanui Vercoe is shining light on the risks Māori communities face in the future due to natural hazards and climate change.

Like many, Haukapuanui Vercoe has watched in awe as Māori communities and the marae at the heart of them responded to crisis after crisis over the last decade: Christchurch and Kaikōura earthquakes, Edgecumbe floods, Cyclone Gabrielle, the list goes on.

“Marae have contributed significantly to the response of hazard events without adequate infrastructure or support from government or external organisations,” says Haukapuanui.

“Imagine the level of service our marae could provide if these support structures are put in place.”

This was the motivation for his research: it seeks engineering solutions for marae that align with the Māori worldview, values and customs.

Using geospatial hazard mapping, Haukapuanui is gathering information which will support marae emergency preparedness plans and strengthen marae resilience.

While the data is informing academic research, it ultimately belongs to the people they are working alongside, says Haukapuanui.

“We act as kaitiaki of this mātauranga, as it is a taonga, and we must treat it as such. Seeing as the buildings in the marae complex embody our ancestors, there is a sense that we are also working with and for them.”

Haukapuanui received a Sir Āpirana Ngata Memorial Scholarship from the Māori Soldiers Trust in 2023, which has provided financial support as he works toward a PhD in Civil Engineering from The University of Auckland.

He is aware that Māori have not had great experiences with academic researchers in the past, so he has taken a kaupapa Māori approach in the mahi.

Fundamental to this is a kanohi kitea (face to face) approach, says Haukapuanui.

“We are treading carefully in regard [to the research process], ensuring that marae are kept up-to-date and engaged on multiple occasions to ensure that the whānau voice is strongly represented,” says Haukapuanui.

Haukapuanui Vercoe

“We must ensure that we don't go for one cup of tea, but many cups of tea.”

It helps that the research team are working directly with their own whānau, hapū, iwi and, therefore, marae.

“Having an insider position has made a huge difference in terms of getting marae to be part of our research. We are not coming through the front door as strangers, but we are coming through the back door as whānau.”

The basis for Haukapuanui’s research is geospatial hazard analysis – in plain language, mapping how exposed marae are to a range of natural hazards such as flooding, some of which are amplified by climate change.

“The findings [are] alarming. Climate change and natural hazards pose a significant threat to our marae in Aotearoa,” says Haukapuanui.

“Climate change is no longer a looming threat but, rather, it is upon us and we are seeing the effects now. Entire marae complexes inundated or projected to be swallowed by Tangaroa by the end of the century due to sea-level rise. Whilst it is frightening, we must move from a reactive to a proactive approach.”

Māori are well-placed to do this though, says Haukapuanui – for centuries, they have navigated uncertainty, coordinating people, distributing kai and resources through cultural imperatives like tangihanga.

“The art of resilience through rapid response, collaboration and leadership is an innate skill among our people. Ko te amorangi ki mua, ko te hāpai ō ki muri – we see these skill sets come together at the marae where the leaders of each domain at the pā take charge, and every whānau member slots into their role to get the job done.”

Haukapuanui says scholarships like that provided by the Māori Soldiers Trust are essential for Māori, as they support tauira to contribute to whānau, hapū and iwi and champion work that directly benefits them.

In this sense, Haukapuanui is following in the footsteps of his koroua, Major Henry Te Reiwhati Vercoe OBE DSO DCM.

“He is the reason I am eligible for this scholarship. Although he received no formal education, upon returning from war, koro Te Reiwhati was instrumental in the establishment of education programmes for Māori. So, in receiving this scholarship, I must acknowledge my koroua for the work he did in his lifetime and it is my duty to honour and continue his legacy.”

Applications for the Sir Āpirana Ngata Memorial Scholarship are open now, closing May 1. All Māori studying at a tertiary level in 2024 are encouraged to apply. To find out more including how to apply for the scholarship, go here: Sir Āpirana Ngata Memorial Scholarship | Te Tumu Paeroa

Pictured top: Haukapuanui Vercoe (far right) with (L-R) his brother Sonny Vercoe, Haki Tahana (Te Arawa Lakes Trust) and Vaughna Mason (Mātaikōtare Marae). 

Pictured middle: Haukapuanui Vercoe (left) with his brother Sonny Vercoe, doing the real mahi - in the kitchen. 

Find out more about Haukapuanui’s important research:

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