Tracing and unsettling path dependency: Creating space for Indigenous knowledge in river management

By Meg Parsons, Johanna Nalau, Roa Petra Crease, Karen Fisher, and Cilla Brown


Tracing and unsettling path dependency: Creating space for Indigenous knowledge in river management


The impacts of climate change and intensified development on floodplains increase the risks posed by flood and emphasize the importance of understanding both the causes of, and mechanisms for, breaking path dependency. Despite incremental changes, decision-makers remain largely “locked-in” to past policies and actions that favor engineered approaches to flood risk (Lawrence et al., 2015, 2013). Our research is an archival study of the history of flood management and path dependency within Aotearoa New Zealand (hereafter referred to as Aotearoa NZ). Such in-depth empirical historical studies offer significant insights into decision-making pathways, which can assist in identifying the factors that contribute to, and help overcome path dependency.


We employ a historical geography approach to investigate the creation, maintenance, and attempts to break path dependency within the Rangitāiki Plains, Aotearoa NZ, from the 1890s until 2017 (Parsons and Nalau, 2016). We draw on primary sources held in archives, libraries, museums, and private collections to show how successive government policies and actions created a profoundly path-dependent system of flood management, the foundation of which resides in processes of indigenous dispossession and the marginalization of local Māori iwi (tribes) knowledge and values from environmental governance and policy.[1]

SIwi (tribal groups) affiliated with the Rangitāiki Plains include Ngāti Awa, Ngāti Makino, Ngāti Pikiao, Tūhoe, and Ngāti Tūwharetoa.  [2]

The term “path dependency” refers to the tendency of institutions and decision-makers to continue to employ past policies and practices in any given situation (such as the government’s response to a flood) even if better alternatives are available because of their structures, values, beliefs, financial implications, and knowledge systems. Put simply, a path-dependent institution is one that is resistant to change, employs a narrow set of decisions and/or approaches (based on past experiences) and seeks to maintain the status quo even if past circumstances and decisions may no longer be applicable or the most appropriate.[3]

Power relations and values in decision making

Our research demonstrates how social values and shared narratives led generations of Pākehā (New Zealanders of European background) residents and decision-makers – first at the level of the central government and then devolved to local government – to perceive the Rangitāiki wetlands as requiring radical transformation, and the close linkages between this transformation, the creation of path dependent institutions, and the marginalization of local Māori communities’ knowledge and values. In contrast to Western understandings that position people as separate from (and in command of) the natural environment, Māori worldviews situate people as part of the environment and as connected with all beings through kinship relationships (Hall, 2012; Harmsworth et al., 2016; Salmond et al., 2014; Te Aho, 2011).

Figure 2a: Map showing extent of wetlands within the Rangitāiki Plains prior to European colonisation and drainage works.

Figure 2b: Map showing current extent of wetlands within the Rangitāiki Plains as of 2019. Source: Used with permission from the author.[4]


Formation of the path: 1910s-1930s drainage and river “improvement”

Decisions to drain the Rangitāiki wetlands and re-align the Rangitāiki River were based on Pākehā subjectivities that perceived floodplains as unpredictable, unproductive and potentially hazardous. The transformation from wetlands to grasslands began in the decades following the 1865 military invasion and confiscation of Māori land, which breached the articles of the Treaty of Waitangi/Te Tiriti o Waitangi (and the underlying principle of partnership on which the legal agreement was based) signed between representatives of various Māori iwi and the British Crown in 1840 (See Figure 2). New technologies enabled radical transformations from indigenous forests and “previously useless swamp” into “the most valuable” land for agriculture (see Figures 2a, 2b, and b) (AJHR, 1911, 1913; Law, 1962; New Zealand Parliament, 1910).

Drainage and flood control efforts profoundly affected Māori, with hard adaptations contributing to the acceleration of Māori land loss. Local Māori did not perceive drainage and flood controls as “improvements,” and regularly petitioned members of parliament and government officials about their loss of lands, resources and degradation associated with drainage and flood controls (Bamford and Brown, 1909; Department of Maori Affairs, 1915; Te Anga, 1914). In these petitions, local Māori challenged scientific technologies and Pākehā values, and sought to reassert Māori knowledge, values, and ways of living (AJHR, 1927, 1923; Waitangi Tribunal, 2009, 1999).

Figure 3: Pākehā men constructing drainage canals by hand in the Rangitāiki Plains circa 1910. The central government also imported dredging machines from Britain and the United States of America to assist in efforts to drain the wetlands. Source: Auckland Libraries Heritage Collection.


Path Continuation: 1940-2010s flooding and the role of local government

By the 1940s, more than 90 per cent of the Rangitāiki wetlands were drained. The loss of wetlands, the removal of native vegetation cover, decline in endemic biodiversity, introduction of exotic grasses and fauna, and development of urban areas contributed to altering river flow and behavior, and increasing flood vulnerability. The first major flood occurred in 1925, the next in 1944, and so on throughout the twentieth and twenty-first century, including in 2017 when one of the levees protecting the township of Edgecumbe broke after a period of heavy rainfall – the town was rapidly engulfed in floodwaters. Each flood event sparked political and public discussions about how to solve the flood hazard. Local governments remained firmly fixed on hard adaptations (most recently with the rebuilding on the Edgecumbe levee following the 2017 flood) as the principal approach to address flood risk, which ultimately reinforced existing institutional arrangements.

Whereas since 1975 onwards the central government was actively engaged in reconciliation efforts with Māori, which included legal agreements with iwi (for example, with ‘Treaty Settlements’); new legislation that acknowledged the Treaty principle of partnership[5] [6]  (between Māori iwi and the Crown); and Māori concepts such as kaitiatanga (guardianship over the environment). Local governments were not legally defined as Treaty partners which meant that they could and did overlook new legislation (the Conservation Act 1987 and the Resource Management Act 1991) that explicitly mentioned Māori values and the need to take into account Māori priorities into government decisions about environmental management. Accordingly, local governments in the Rangitāiki Plains (like elsewhere in Aotearoa) were able to disregard the protests of local iwi (including Ngāti Awa about the use of rock walls, the removal of vegetation, and destruction of waterways.

Figure 4: Rebuilt levee in Edgecumbe township, July 2017. Source: Used with the author’s permission.


Disrupting path dependency

River and flood risk management in the Rangitāiki Plains continues to prioritize Western understandings of human-environmental relationships and to privilege Pākehā values. However, recent efforts in the late 2010s by local Māori in the Rangitāiki Plains (and elsewhere) to reassert their rights, values and interests, facilitated by legal mechanisms and new institutional arrangements – including co-governance arrangements, new legislation, and local management plans – hold the potential to produce new priorities and approaches to managing rivers and flood risk, and most notably, the desires to restore wetlands and their preference for ecosystem-based adaptations rather than hard adaptations (levees, drainage canals, and pumping stations). The inclusion of different types of knowledge and values is, thus, critical to breaking path dependencies within environmental governance and management regimes (Crow et al., 2018; Jeffers, 2014).

Conclusion and emerging research gaps

In our research, we traced the history of path dependency within a single flood risk management system and highlighted how the management of flooding is a layering process wherein individual decisions and actions accumulate over time. Successive generations of Pākehā actors mobilized to establish and then maintain the dominant approach to flood management based on particular values and beliefs about the environment and what constitutes appropriate use of environmental resources. To this day, institutions remain committed to the use of hard adaptations (see Figure 4 showing rebuilt levee in Edgecumbe), despite substantive critiques by Māori communities for generations, and by non-Māori ecologists and scholars (Clarkson et al., 2013; Makey and Awatere, 2018). However, as our research demonstrates, there is a need for new decolonizing approaches that recognize Māori knowledge and values (most notably kaitiatanga/guardianship), and the Treaty principle of partnership on which Aotearoa as a nation was first founded.


Reference List

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AJHR. (1923) G-06f Native Land Amendment and Native Land Claims Adjustment Act, 1922. Report on Petition No. 187/1922. Wellington: Government Printer (AJHR No. G-06f)

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Crow, S.K., Tipa, G.T., Booker, D.J., and Nelson, K.D. (2018) ‘Relationships between Maori values and streamflow: tools for incorporating cultural values into freshwater management decisions’, New Zealand Journal of Marine and Freshwater Research, 52(4), pp.626–642.

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Megan’s research adopts a transdisciplinary and decolonizing approach to explore how Indigenous peoples’ in Oceania conceptualize and respond to intersecting processes of social and global environmental changes. The authors for this paper includes a mixture of Indigenous and non-Indigenous researchers: Karen Fisher, Roa Crease, and Megan Parsons are all of mixed Māori/Pākehā/other ancestry; Johanna Nalau is Finnish; and Cilla Brown is Samoan.