Graeme Atkins of Ngāti Porou, a kaitiaki for indigenous biodiversity, has been recognised by the most esteemed conservation award in Aotearoa, the Loder Cup, presented today by Minister of Conservation Eugenie Sage.
"Personal knowledge is a big motivator for me - you never stop learning and I've been learning about our taiao (environment) since I was a wee fella, probably four or five years old following my father around in the bush," Atkins told Te Ao Māōri News. "And so that's half a century ago now, the passion is still there. I think what I've got is our whānau trust, especially with our Raukūmara kaupapa, I've been doing this long enough so that people trust what we are going to do as a community."
The Department of Conservation ranger has devoted his life to protecting and restoring native flora in the Tairāwhiti region, as well as fighting against the growing number of introduced pests that continue to cause a devastating imbalance within the ecosystem.
"Our region suffers from some of the worst erosion in the world, and former land that was under bush is all farm and it's got really bad soil erosion problem, and now, with the deer issue, the Raukūmara is starting to contribute to the sediment loads down our awa especially the Waiapu (river)," Atkins told Te Ao. "I live at the mouth of the Waiapu, Tīkapa, and every time it rains heavily we lose more and more land. The buzzword these days is sustainability. If every time it rains we lose the land, where's the sustainability in that? This kaupapa with the Raukūmara, we ignore it at our peril really."
His advocacy for restoring the health of the forests of the Raukumara Range has helped secure a record $34 million investment in Te Raukumara Pae Maunga project. It is a partnership between Te Whanau-a-Apanui, Ngati Porou and DoC to control deer, goats, possums and other pests over 150,000 hectares to protect the Raukumara forests, to ensure species such as Whio/blue duck, Kākā, Kererū, and Pepeketua/Hochstetter's frog can thrive once more, and strengthen Ahi Kaa for Mana Whenua.
"You can't do anything without money, so that we've managed to get the government to buy in on our iwi Ngāti Porou and Te Whānau a Apanui's aspirations, and there's a new way of doing the business of conservation and that's going to be as equal partners (with the Crown). Job creation is a biggie, so we've been given funding for four years, but we don't view this as four years, this is the first step in 50 years, 500 years, of looking after our taiao and the Raukūmara especially," Atkins told Te Ao.
“Through his passion for taonga and rongoa, Graeme has made an outstanding contribution to the conservation of Aotearoa’s native plants. His protection of very rare plants, such as the white kakabeak/ngutukaka, the native iris mikoikoi, and dactylanthus on the East Coast has been vital to plant conservation in a region which is relatively understudied," Sage said.
Graeme learned rongoā from his grandmother and credits his passion for plants to his tohunga ancestor. Graeme continues this hereditary interest by running rongoā classes and caring for a rongoā garden.
“He is humble and compassionate, has strong relationships with Maori and has ignited a passion in so many people to cherish our country’s flora. He is a true kaitiaki for indigenous biodiversity,” Sage said.