Being better ancestors

You might think that this story starts when an organisation called Para Kore was founded, about a decade ago. Or it might be when a woman named Marie Cocker took up Para Kore kaupapa at a Wellington city marae. But actually, it starts at the very beginning, with Ranginui and Papatūānuku.

Marie Cocker didn’t even recycle at home a couple of years ago. Now, when she’s hiring new staff for her team at Victoria University’s Te Herenga Waka Marae, she chucks a question about sustainability into the interview.

Marie says while adopting a para kore (zero waste) approach at the marae means more work for her team, it’s worth it.

“There is a saying: if you think that you don’t make a difference in the world, try sleeping with one mosquito.

“If we’ve got all these people doing it, then it makes a difference. There’s a ripple down effect.

“I didn’t recycle until I did it here. Now I recycle. My daughter recycles. My moko knows about recycling. My moko knows to go shopping with reusable bags. If we’re going to make change we do it with our moko.

“It has had an effect on the whole team.”

Marie Cocker, Director of Te Herenga Waka Marae at Victoria University
Marie at Te Herenga Waka Marae, where they’re putting para kore into action.

Para Kore is a non-profit which supports Māori organisations to reduce waste to landfill. Marie first invited them in for a chat when she took over as Director of Te Herenga Waka in 2017.

Though she was no eco-warrior at home, Marie thought para kore made sense at the marae.

“Everything our ancestors did was based around practices that made sure there was enough leftover for the next generation.”

“Here we are, we feed thousands of people a year, maybe 8500 — just in powhiri, not including the space being used for teaching.

“We talk about tikanga Māori, and it’s really important for me to not just talk about it but practice it too. I think we need to put our money where our mouth is.”

Marie’s team has set up waste systems,on the marae itself, in the team’s offices, and in the whānau rooms across campus, that mean everything that can be composted or recycled is.

They’ve started growing a vegetable and herb garden in raised beds out the back of the university’s Victorian villas.

Te Herenga Waka Marae team in kitchen
The marae hosts thousands a year, so good waste systems are vital.

They look critically at the resources they use in their teaching and in their hosting to make sure there’s no unnecessary plastic use, and they’re trying to plant as many native plants on marae grounds that are edible or can be used for rongoā as possible.

Importantly, as a part of all that hosting the marae does, they let visitors know what to expect. For example, they’ll email manuhiri ahead of graduation to let them know there’s no single-use plastic bottles allowed on the grounds.

Marie says there is rarely resistance to it – sometimes because whānau are already practising para kore at their home marae – because they’re coming at it from a Māori worldview.

“Whenua is the land, but it’s also the placenta… Whānau is family and to be born. Hapu is subtribe but also to be pregnant. Iwi is our tribe, but also means bones,” she says.

“We’re actually only the kaitiaki, we’re only here to look after the land, to continue it so it can thrive, so it can be a life to feed our future generations.”

Threaded through the tikanga and the language there’s a recognition of the relationship between the land and the people, says Marie.

“The land nourishes the people, and the people giving back the whenua, there’s this absolute connectedness. I think that to me is about learning to practice. We’ve lost a lot of the ways we used to do things just out of convenience.”

Marie says it’s as much about reconnecting with the tikanga as it is about doing good for the environment. Understanding sustainability through the lens of tikanga Māori is what’s made it stick.

“Te Kawa [from Para Kore] put it in terms we understand. He didn’t talk about why you shouldn’t use plastic and why you should do this and that. He talked about the whenua. Papa and Rangi. He talked about the things that we know. It was like a lightbulb moment.”

Te Kawa Robb from Para Kore
Para Kore’s Te Kawa Robb brings it back to the beginning for marae and kura kaupapa.

Para Kore kaiārahi Te Kawa Robb says zero waste — despite what Instagram influencers might have you believe — is not a new concept.

“As an organisation we started in 2009, but as a set of values, and a worldview, it goes back to our creation story.”

Te Kawa says although the creation story varies from iwi to iwi, it mostly starts the same – with Ranginui (sky father) and Papatūānuku (earth mother) in an embrace, with their children in between, a forced separation and then boom, the universe was created.

Hineahuone, a woman made of soil, clay or sand, was one of the first beings – some say it was Tane Mahuta that breathed life into her – and all are descended from her.

“We all descend from Hineahuone, and it’s through our relationship with her and our atua (ancestors) that we have a connection back to anything in the world. We have relationships with totara through Tane Mahuta, connections to the oceans through Tangaroa.

“And that’s beautiful imagery, but because all of the atua and the fact that they created everything, by default we also have a relationship and a whakapapa connection to this coffee cup and this table – they’re all made from materials and resources that come from our world.”

That’s the foundation of the conversation, says Te Kawa, and their approach as an organisation.

In the last 10 years Para Kore has worked with about 400 marae, kura kaupapa, kōhanga reo or other Māori organisations to minimise their waste. They estimate their efforts have resulted in about 376 tonnes of waste diverted from landfill.

What has made it a success is coming at it from an inigenous worldview, says Te Kawa.

“From that common place that we share, individual responses can be developed within that framework. That makes it’s approachable, it’s safe, it’s equitable.”

From there they can talk about where stuff comes from, break down ideas of waste, talk about what taonga are, what natural resources are, and how we all came from people who lived a zero waste lifestyle.

“Zero waste is not a new concept, we’ve all lived zero waste lifestyles. Zero waste lifestyles look different to different people depending on where they are. It’s getting the fish from the sea, it’s harvesting birds from the forest, it’s preserving fruit, it’s growing food in the garden – all cultures and communities have done that at one time.”

It’s working within the rhythms and limits of our natural world, says Te Kawa. Somewhere along the line we’ve all become disconnected from that.

But it’s important we get back to that, before it’s too late, say Te Kawa.

“We’re running out of resources. The whole take, make, distribute, sell, dispose, linear economic system is completely flawed. We’re running out of the resources to maintain the lifestyles that we’ve become accustomed to. Unless we change, it’s going to be painful. Which is not to say that change won’t be painful, it will, but it can be less painful if we do it the right way.”

Te Kawa also points to the impact this system has on our health and well-being and culture, with disproportionate impact on indigenous people.

“If we don’t change, cultures are at risk of having cultural practices taken from them. Indigenous people are contributing the least to these huge global issues, but are often times the most affected.”

In this complex system of problems though, there’s opportunity, says Te Kawa.

“There’s so much positive that can happen by changing. Imagine a world where we have equitable access to food and water, to housing, where people are less consumed with consuming and have more time to focus on relationships. We’re caught between economic systems that keep us working for a dollar and paying off a mortgage.

“We would become resilient in the face of climate change, but things like hate as well. When you’re in the garden working alongside someone, getting your hands dirty, you build a relationship with that person and with the very whenua that sustains you.”

To read more about Para Kore’s work, go to their website:

Te Herenga Waka are currently fundraising for an incredible project called The Living Pā, which will see a set of villas replaced with a self-sufficient building:

For more idea on how to go reduce waste, check out the resources the awe-inspiring people behind The Rubbish Trip have put together.


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