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Conserving seeds to fight plant extinction

Whānau of Te Awa Tupua, the Whanganui River, are the fifth recipients of a seed-banking drum kit developed as part of a BioHeritage National Science Challenge project focused on developing Māori solutions to fight myrtle rust. A seed-banking drum is a special kit that enables community members to collect, dry and store seeds from local taonga (treasured) plants.

With support from Te Tira Whakamātaki (TTW – The Māori Biosecurity Network), the initiative was launched when Māori communities identified seed-banking as central to protecting Aotearoa New Zealand from threats such as myrtle rust, says BioHeritage Māori Manager Melanie Mark-Shadbolt.

Myrtle rust is a serious fungal disease that attacks trees in the myrtle family, including taonga species pōhutukawa, mānuka and rātā.

The seed-banking drums are easy to build and straightforward to use, enabling communities to use them to conserve seed according to their local, traditional collection tikanga (protocols).

Whanganui women Kim Ranginui and Marilyn Tamakehu are strongly connected to the marae alongside Te Awa Tupua, and Te Kura o te Wainui ā Rua – the awa school based at Rānana – and felt it was fitting for the seed-bank gifting to happen at the kura (school). “It means the tamariki and community can celebrate the seed-banking efforts, plus we hope they’ll be inspired to pursue possible career options in science or environmental protection fields,” Marilyn says.

“Te Kura o Te Wainui ā Rua is the epicentre for tamariki who live and breathe Te Awa Tupua on a daily basis and – as such – this is the ideal venue for this exciting occasion to happen.

“The kura also has the benefit of the heritage orchards on the surrounding marae which have supported our learning and enhanced the understanding of our tamariki in relation to this important kaupapa (subject).”

In late 2017, Kim and Marilyn attended a seed conservation course in Aotearoa that was facilitated by TTW and the Millennium Seed Bank (MSB) that’s part of England’s Kew Royal Botanic Gardens (RBG Kew). They’re passionate about seed-banking, ensuring iwi gain knowledge of preserving taonga species and that this is maintained for generations to come. As part of the TTW-RBG Kew collaboration, Kim recently secured a place on a three-week, intensive Seed Conservation Techniques course hosted by RBG Kew’s Conservation Science Department at MSB in the UK.

Mel says the BioHeritage project has highlighted the concern Māori have that tikanga was not adequately acknowledged within national or international seed-banking practices.

“While New Zealand has been seed-banking for some time now, especially within the myrtle rust response, unfortunately Māori aren’t being consulted adequately throughout the process. This means that, in some instances, sites sacred to Māori were being harvested for seeds without free, prior or informed consent as required under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

“In an effort to turn that around, this project is about raising awareness of seed-banking activities in Aotearoa, and reclaiming seed conservation mātauranga (Māori knowledge).

“This practical approach provides tangible benefits to our communities and valuable insights to improve conservation outcomes – for example our people can collect and store seeds valuable to their communities guided by kaumatua (Māori elders) who can guide them on which trees are the ‘parents’ or best ones to collect seeds from.

“Incorporating this traditional knowledge is crucial to optimising the long-term disease management of myrtle rust.”

By using the seed-banking drums, communities are effectively building an insurance policy that can future-proof taonga species from extinction, Mel says.

“If we look at Australia for example, they didn’t seed-bank before myrtle rust arrived and now they have taonga species on the verge of extinction.

“Sharing knowledge and the things we learn from the myrtle rust incursion will help us be more prepared for future biosecurity invasions.”

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