The islands that comprise New Zealand have been isolated from other land masses for over 80 million years, creating a natural evolutionary laboratory like no other. As we travel, we will focus on some fundamental questions of evolution: What forces shaped the biota of this land? What did 80 million years of isolation do to the plants, animals, and ecosystems of these islands?
The arrival of the Māori in New Zealand around 700 years ago marked the beginning of several waves of invasions – invasions of people, plants, and animals. These lead to the question: what makes something or someone “native” – whether plant, animal, or person – versus an “invader”? The Māori could be seen initially as invaders; they drove several plant and animal species to extinction. Over time, they had to figure out how survive in ecosystems they had never before encountered.
The next round of invasions, this time of Europeans (known by the Māori as Pākehā) around 300 years ago, created even bigger changes. Huge numbers of invasive plant and animal species have irrevocably changed the ecology of New Zealand. New Zealanders are consequently wrestling with significant conservation challenges, focusing on how to protect the country’s biodiversity from invasive species and resource use. The Europeans also had a profound impact on the Māori. From the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, the relationship between the Māori and Pākehā has been fraught with miscommunication and discrimination, and has resulted for the Māori in loss of land, loss of language, and a culture that was forced to adapt to a new reality.
Today New Zealand is in an “intervention” phase in regards to many of these issues. Māori is now one of New Zealand’s national languages. Māori perspectives and views of the land are increasingly taken into account in regards to conservation. And the Māori have taken on leadership roles within the government. Education can also be seen as an intervention for both the environment and Māori culture. For instance, the Ministry of Education’s national curriculum mandates “…education IN the environment, education FOR the environment, and education ABOUT the environment.” The introduction of Māori immersion schools seek to keep alive Māori language and culture. During our time in New Zealand we will explore the effectiveness of these interventions.