Indigenous Elders, youth, community members, and academics tend to say something similar when we talk about addressing colonialism in science and in activism: start from where you are. Colonialism is not a monolith and works differently in different places. That means addressing colonialism will look different in different places. But more importantly, in every place there are Indigenous people already doing scientific work and activism in a good way and knowing about that work is one of the first responsibilities for all people of all heritages when addressing colonialism in science and advocacy. Always start where you are.

Photo of Tina Ngata.

The following conversation between Max Liboiron (Métis) and Tina Ngata (Ngāti Porou) covers how colonialism, plastic pollution, and Māori sciences are unique in Aotearoa, even if their projects, methods, and principles resonate in other areas.

ML: Tina, how would you start thinking about plastic pollution from where you are in a good way?

TN: From a Māori worldview, “starting where you are”, as a principle, is encapsulated in the concept of whakapapa. This highlights the primacy of relationships in everything we do. It means that every concept has distinctive relationships that define it, relationships that extend out to place and time. As an underpinning principle for the Māori worldview, whakapapa, the acknowledgment and building of relationships is an extremely sacred concept. Starting where you are is therefore pivotal for both understanding your distinct colonial context, as well as the basis upon which to grow relationships of integrity in other contexts. Working within Aotearoa means that whatever region or township you are working in requires you to start with understanding the distinct relationships for that place and building out from there. It can also mean exploring the genealogy of your issue for that local community. Take plastics for example – Has anyone come along before you to do research in this area and if so, what was that experience like for the people of that community? Is the very issue of plastics loaded with trauma for them? Researchers tend to treat each new project as if it’s a fresh experience for everyone involved, when the very experience of being researched has a whakapapa – a timeline and genealogy – of its own for most Indigenous communities and we remember poor practice. If you are taking an anti-colonial approach this also means understanding your own positionality within these relationships – how did you come to be where you are? What power relationships are present? All of these things can be considered good practice for “starting where you are”.

Photo of plastic pollution research from the PURE Tour 2018 @thepuretour2018

ML: So where would you start in Aotearoa? Who would you start those conversations to build relationships with? Where is the starting line?

TN: There has been and continues to be some pretty amazing work going on around decolonizing plastic pollution in Aotearoa. Some of the key initiatives and groups are:

  • Para Kore, a Māori-led “zero waste organisation with a kaupapa based on whakapapa to Papatūānuku and expressed through an experienced and skilled team who are passionate about, and committed to, achieving a zero waste Aotearoa.” They have been decolonising perspectives on waste and plastic pollution since 2011 now, work with 423 Māori communities around the country and won the 2016 Energy Globe award for their efforts.
  • The PURE 2018 tour, which was a collaboration between scientists, Māori and Pacific peoples, universities, and Māori/Pacific NGOs that wove together education, youth and Indigenous leadership, Western science, and discussion of solutions.
  • Waka hourua (ocean canoes) are working with local schools and communities to learn about plastic pollution from a Māori cultural basis as Tāngata Moana (Ocean Peoples). This includes cleanup efforts, habitat impact assessments and trawls.
  • Toimata Foundation is a sustainability education organisation that works with mainstream and Māori immersion schools to foster connections between people and place, and responsiveness to the environment. Their guiding principles lead all of their education, including that of plastics pollution, to take a decolonial (Māori centered) approach.
  • Aotearoa Impacts and Mitigation of Microplastics (AIM²) is a national research programme to determine the impacts of microplastics in New Zealand. This includes work with Iwi Māori around the impacts of microplastic contamination upon taonga and ecosystems.

ML: And of course, you! Your work on plastic pollution and colonialism has been crucial to—even foundational to—how we think about plastic and colonialism in CLEAR. I first “met” you when you were previously blogging as “The Non-plastic Māori” and I know you have led or been involved in many of the initiatives you just mentioned, like leading the PURE 2018 tour. I think both the content of what you do, talking about pollution and waste as an issue of ongoing colonialism, as well as the way you do it—in partnership and with boots on the ground, is a model we strive for—that I strive for, anyhow. And you’ve been doing it a long time. I’ve been watching your work for years and it’s been interesting to see how your path is building, nuancing, branching.

TN: That’s quite mutual! It was our friend Anna Cummins from 5Gyres who introduced us right? I’ve followed your work since then and have been a big fan.

ML: Yes! Likewise. What are some of the lessons you’ve learned between when you started and how about the relationships between plastics, colonialism, consumption, state pollution laws, and other relationships?

TN: Oh, that’s been an interesting journey and one that can be tracked through my blog content. I started off very practical and focussed on one thing – getting the weight of my plastic waste down, and picking up as much as I could from the beach to grow my “negative waste count”. My blog, in the early days, was full of reflections on divesting plastics, shopping tips and recipes for plastic-free living. It was very much focussed on my personal waste prevention and management.

You often hear the term “we have to turn the problem off at the tap” – which means preventing it at the source. So whether it’s because you want to scale up your impact, or whether you are looking for the “tap”, you inevitably wind up looking at the role of policies – who is making them, who is influencing them, and who is benefitting/suffering from them. At the time we had a lot of issues with oil companies along our coastline and it was easy to identify the same players, using the same tricks, and utilising the same dynamics for their own gain.

I came to realise very early on that plastic pollution, like climate change, was just another form of colonization upon our bodies and territories: an uninvited intrusion driven by people with a supreme sense of entitlement. This meant, for me, that “turning it off at the tap” didn’t mean changing policy as it does for most, it meant exposing, and dismantling, the racist and imperialist nature of plastics pollution, just as we must expose and dismantle racist and imperialist structures in general. So my blog has, for years now, been focussed upon these issues.

A container ship sailing near the Albatross conservation and breeding cetner in Dunedin.  Photo: Max Liboiron.

ML: Do you have a sense of what some of the anti-colonial or decolonial understandings of plastic pollution coming out of these projects?

TN: Plastic is a disruptor of whakapapa – which is huge in Te Ao Māori (the Māori world). As an endocrine disruptor it has the power to affect hormones and reproductive cycles. As the core binding concept of our world, starting the conversation from there is much more meaningful.

Plastic is also a disruptor of mahinga kai (natural food systems). We love our kai (food) and we love growing families. So these two points really make our people sit up and pay attention.

Some of the really important discussions Para Kore have driven revolve around what it means to really manaaki (host) visitors at gatherings. Hosting people is a point of pride for Māori, and so recentering the discussion around waste to whether we are using localised, unprocessed, quality food as a mark of love for our guests and pride in our hosting skills. Jacqui Forbes (CE and founder of Para Kore) has been an incredible leader in this field of growing relevant discussions and approaches to waste pollution from a Maori perspective.

These are all powerful understandings that resonate a lot more for our own communities, but importantly, when these approaches are taken, and the relationships are grown with integrity, then the culturally centered solutions start to flow.

Photo of plastic pollution research from the PURE Tour 2018 @thepuretour2018

ML: What do you think are the main issues and highlights in dealing with plastic pollution in Aotearoa in a way that recognizes colonialism and looks to address the shared issues between them?

Aotearoa labours under the misconception that racism is not a problem here. We love to think, and project to the world, that we are the “good guys”. The myth of racial harmony is a longstanding NZ tradition and it certainly stands in the way of us decolonizing our practices. Can’t fix what you don’t see. Our treaty partners tend to look overseas a lot and seem to have an easier time identifying colonialism in Canada, the USA and Australia than here in Aotearoa. NZ were relatively slow to start looking at our own plastic problem precisely because our government, for many years, contested that we don’t produce much waste – even though per capita we are amongst the highest plastic waste producers in the world and our dominant imports are petroleum and petrochemicals. There is undoubtedly an economic incentive to this blindspot (like many settler colonial states) – the New Zealand economy is built off the back of stolen Māori land, and that injustice is maintained through the oppression of Māori and Pacific communities. Recognising the colonial nature of plastic pollution opens up a Pandoras Box of issues around Indigenous oceanic territorial rights, economic injustice, and enduring imperial entitlement in the science and political sectors which many frankly find too threatening to even glance sideways at. Until they face it head on, they will continue to perpetuate colonial injustice. Once they do, well there will be multiple highlights to be enjoyed – then the real work can begin.

ML: Even though we face different forms of colonialism, that also resonates here in Canada. How has the “special” kind of colonialism in Aotearoa impacted plastic pollution and research there? What is different there that, say, wouldn’t work in Newfoundland and Labrador, where I work?

Waitangi Sheet, one of nine documents in Te Tiriti o Waitangi. Archives NZ. cc-by-sa-2.0

TN: Without knowing too much about Newfoundland and Labrador’s Indigenous political history, I think I can just say that our Treaty, Te Tiriti o Waitangi, is a very distinct agreement that created a space for Non-Māori to be here in Aotearoa. It’s often related to as the “first immigration document”. I like to consider it as the Pākeha (European) tenancy agreement. Pākeha wrote it, and Pākeha breached it before the ink was dry, and they continue to breach it to this day – we have to be the most forgiving landlords ever. That document also affirms our pre-existing rights to abundant lands and territories and outlines a power-sharing relationship for how these things would be managed. It is meant to be observed and understood by all Crown employees (which includes researchers for Crown Research Institutes and University research centers). Unfortunately, however, it has rarely been understood or recognised. That is changing now though – there is a lot of good work underway that makes Treaty responsiveness, and authentic approaches to working with Māori a measurable and accountable requirement in order to get research funding. That’s a good thing for all involved – when our Treaty partners understand the Treaty as the source of their rights in Aotearoa, everything becomes easier.

ML: If you had advice to give to other Indigenous researchers in this area, what would it be?

TN: From the years of researchers measuring pickled Indigenous brains to prove how much smarter Europeans were, to current genetic research into “warrior genes” – colonial research has been a violent and harmful tool which the colonial researcher has never, once, considered to be violent and harmful.  Keep our people safe.

ML: I find that one of the hardest early lessons for Indigenous researchers that I teach is that they are joining a colonial legacy as a university or accredited researcher, and they are now part of those legacies. You don’t automatically stop reproducing that legacy just because you’re Indigenous, and not reproducing it isn’t sufficient–you also have to acknowledge that legacy. And that will be different in different places, for people from different Nations and groups.

If you had to give advice, which I bet you often do, to non-Indigenous researchers in this area, what would it be?

TN: You cannot extract Indigenous knowledge from the bodies and minds that carry that knowledge. That knowledge will only have meaning if it exists in relationship to the people. Otherwise, what you are doing is carrying out extractive research, and you are no different to any other mining company. Mining companies aren’t doing so well anymore.

I should say that this is not restricted to researchers. NGOs, activists, allies, all need to “start where they are at.” There is a common tendency to import ideas from other places and simply transplant them into the local context. In some cases that amounts to a mimicry of imperialism.

ML: Yes. We find this with NGOs and activist groups as well. The good intentions of a range of groups end up dictating what is good and right and true, not recognizing that we already have versions of that on the ground here. It often makes me think of imperialism in that it’s an effort to make ideal “citizens” through behaviour change or shifting values or learning scientific methods– that’s the same thing imperial powers do. Make ideal Western citizens based on Western ideas, values, norms, ways of knowing and good intentions.

This has been a great conversation, and I’m grateful for everything you’ve shared. There is much in common but also so many crucial differences that show why you just can’t import ideas from one place and stick them somewhere new even if they resonate, whether that’s science or advocacy. Not if you want to be anti-colonial, anyhow. So last question! What are you working on now? What can I look forward to next?

TN: I’m working on the AIM2 study, addressing microplastics in Aotearoa – and I’m specifically looking at frameworks for understanding the roles of Imperialism, Indigenous rights and our Treaty history in the context of that research. I’m also finalising a trawling project for waka hourua (ocean voyaging canoes) and am embarking on work around the Doctrine of Discovery as it manifests in environmental racism in Aotearoa. I recently published a book on the Doctrine of Discovery in Aotearoa and am busy turning that into a podcast series.


Cite as: Ngata, Tina, and Max Liboiron. (2020). Māori plastic pollution expertise in Aotearoa. CLEAR.

Tina Ngata (Ngāti Porou) is an Indigenous researcher who lives on her ancestral lands on the East Coast of Te Ika a Maui. Her work includes local, national and transnational initiatives that highlight the role of settler colonialism in issues such as climate change and waste pollution. She is author of Kia Mau: Resisting Colonial Fictions (2019), published by Rebel Press.

Max Liboiron (Métis) directs CLEAR, a feminist and anti-colonial marine science lab dedicated to research in and mitigation of plastic pollution using methods rooted in place. Her forthcoming book, Pollution is Colonialism will be published by Duke University Press in 2021.