Rongoā Māori

The Waitangi Tribunal’s report on the Wai 262 inquiry Ko Aotearoa Tēnei dedicated a whole chapter to rongoā Māori. The Tribunal described rongoā as a taongā over which Māori exercise rangatiratanga and kaitiakitanga. That authority has been subordinated over several centuries – most notoriously the Tohunga Suppression Act 1907. The Labour government established Te Pae Tawhiti as a programme to implement Ko Aotearoa Tēnei, including on rongoā Māori, but it has moved very slowly. 

Meanwhile, the Government moved in the opposite direction. A Therapeutic Products Bill in 2022 would allow a Crown-appointed Registrar, employed by the Ministry of Health, to decide who can make rongoā, what rongoā can contain, who can use rongoā and how rongoā can be described. The proposed law applies a Western world view, standards, and decision making procedures that cut directly across Te Tiriti o Waitangi. There is no role for rongoā practitioners in that new regime, let alone recognition of their right to exercise rangatiraranga over rongoā, and no Tiriti o Waitangi protections. 

Rongoā Māori practitioner Donna Kerridge, a Kaihautū of Ngā Toki Whakarururanga, warned that the Therapeutic Medicines Bill may be intended to clear the way for free trade agreements (FTAs). That suspicion was reinforced by MFAT’s refusal to release that part of its advice on the Therapeutic Medicines Bill under the Official Information Act request. A groundswell of resistance to this Bill may pressure the government to back off.

But the links to trade agreements are already on the record. The same Western regulatory model has been promoted through secretly negotiated free trade agreements. In 2003, Australia and New Zealand agreed to implement a joint regime under the Australia New Zealand Therapeutic Products Authority (ANZTPA). The Crown failed to consult with rongoā practitioners or seek input from hapū, iwi and relevant rōpū. The Wai 262 inquiry agreed to an urgent interim hearing of concerns raised by Te Waka Kai Ora and Ngāti Kahungunu. 

At the Tribunal, Te Waka Kai Ora argued that minimising trade barriers means opening up markets for rongoā products and incentivising non-Māori commercial interests to develop products that use mātauranga Māori for their own gain, knowing they are subject to almost no legal protections, and without seeking permission from or engaging with Māori.  Even though rongoā was to be excluded from the ANZTPA, the Waitangi Tribunal’s final report warned that similar arrangements were a risk under the NZ-Australia Closer Economic Relations (CER) Agreement and the Trans-Tasman Mutual Recognition Arrangement 1998. 

That risk applies to a wide range of international trade agreements. Externally imposed regulatory standards could effectively shut down the ability of rongoā practitioners and Māori traditional healers to develop their own kaupapa and tikanga-based standards in breach of the Crown’s Tiriti obligation to protect that mātauranga and practitioners’ exercise of rangatiratanga, mana and kaitiakitanga. 

Protecting rongoā in the trade space

Advice for rongoā practitioners wanting to export overseas

“Go hard but do it our way” says Ngā Toki Whakarururanga kaihautū Donna Kerridge.

  • Don’t allow others to dictate to us how we should practice or what our taonga should look like.
  • There is more to success than financial gain. When money replaces mana as currency in our world, people go hungry.
  • Ensure you follow tikanga and put the taiao first including reciprocity and balance. Don’t take taonga from the taiao if there is not going to be enough left over for it to remain sustained and flourishing. Without the health of the earth there can be no health or wealth for the people. Remember we are all kaitiaki for the next generation and we are each entitled to enough to be well – no more no less.

Advice for healthcare workers

It is clear that the current healthcare system is struggling to meet demand and provide a safe and healthy workplace for its people. We know from the outcomes associated with 70,000 ACC kiritaki experiences that rongoā can deliver benefits to the people of this country and help relieve some of the pressure on the current system. We are not in competition with each other, but we can help each other. All that would require is respect for different ways of understanding the world, serving and supporting the people of Aotearoa New Zealand, and ensuring that kiritaki have what they need to make informed choices for themselves. Our people (all peoples) are richer for the choice.

Advice for policy makers

Rongoā policy makers, including in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, must:

  • Respect rongoā practitioners’ rights to apply, use, evolve and trade our taonga according to our respective tikanga. If policies mess with our practices and try to commodify them to look and feel a certain way, the practice could be made unsafe and put both our people and our culture at risk.
  • Let us honour our promises to each other, as was agreed by our ancestors in 1840 when Te Tiriti was signed, and the rights to self-determination and to protect and practice traditional medicines under the UNDRIP.
  • Play fair. No one group is more entitled than another, including Māori. We must look after the wellbeing of all (not the reported majority) and to do that we must protect the taiao rather than exploit it. It is ludicrous to enable FTAs that give power to overseas corporations at the expense of future generations that will live on this land.

Downloadable resources