Is research into carbon in Antarctic ice cores racist?

Jerry Coyne writes:

Here’s another kerfuffle that two academics from New Zealand called to my attention. I am letting one of them comment on a recent exchange about a paper involving Maori burning of land, which apparently produced carbon deposits in Antarctica.

The paper below was published in Nature last month, and suggests an explanation for high rates of carbon deposition found in Antarctic ice cores starting about 700 years ago: levels three times higher than in previous centuries.  As the abstract below shows, the most likely explanation was soot being blown towards Antarctica from either Tasmania, New Zealand, or Patagonia.  But the record of fire use (“paleofire” studies), the directionality of carbon distribution, plus the timing (Maori settled New Zealand around 1300), suggests suggests that New Zealand was the source, probably from Maori burning of forests or fields that caused ancillary wildfires. 

So these scientists were trying to work out why there was a high level of carbon in Antarctic ice cores from 700 years ago. And they conclude the most likely explanation was burning of forests in Aotearoa/New Zealand.

This research then got noticed in NZ, and the usual suspects huffed and puffed and here is what a Waikato University Dean said:

“The association of Māori with fire is longstanding. Mahuika goddess of fire gifted her fingernails of flames to enable us to have fire for warmth; fire for sustenance; fire to provide nutrients for the earth. We attribute and honour Mahuika. She is part of our whakapapa. Her mokopuna Māui attempted to reduce her power by tricking her into giving up all of her fingernails but she was able to outwit him, planting her flame into the trees so that fire would be freely available. Fire also defined our boundaries of authority as expressed in this whakataukī ‘ka wera hoki i te ahi, e mana ana anō’ meaning ‘while the fire burns, the mana is effective.’ We claimed occupation of our territories by the principle of ahi kaa, that is, we kept our home fires burning.

“Through our Ātua, gods and goddesses, we developed deeply embedded practises and rituals and our relationship with fire was interdependent, reciprocal, beneficial and also very practical. Upon arrival to these lands, we relied on the aruhe or fernroot as part of our staple diet. We relied on the moa and other birdlife for food. Burning became part of our practises; regular burning allowed plants to regenerate and some of the minerals in the ash provided rich nutrients for the land. Regular burning facilitated hunting and access to hunting grounds. Such practises would be typical for any newcomers creating homes on unfamiliar lands to allow time to become acquainted with seasonal cycles, climatic conditions, finding the best places to lay out their plantations and hence their new settlements or kainga. No doubt some burning would not have been controlled as well as they may have planned, but this can be understood. It is not unlike any other peoples adjusting to new lands and new conditions.

“The internationally authored paper by scientists who examined Antarctic ice core records to find that carbon emissions increased significantly from wildfires after Māori first arrived in Aotearoa is devoid of context, devoid of cultural understandings and is yet another example of what we have grown to expect from western science. It relies on measurements, modelling and silo thinking and the paper whether intentional or not, posits Māori as the ‘naughty’ offenders. Moreover, it reeks of scientific arrogance with its implicit assumption that somehow Māori have a lot to account for in terms of contributing to carbon emissions and destroying the pristine environment of the Southern Oceans and Antarctica. Goodness knows why Māori are primarily emphasised, and for what purpose this article was written. Obviously these authors have not caught up with the positive changes in research and science in this country where Mātauranga Māori within the MBIE Vision Mātauranga policy demands Māori involvement, Māori participation and Māori leadership. This involvement starts from the basic premise that we as Māori will tell our own stories and control our own knowledge. Mātauranga Māori is a living knowledge system rooted in our environmental encounters which was outward looking and relationship based. We are connected in kinship even to fire through Mahuika as the spiritual goddess of fire. Similarly we have relationships with the Southern Oceans and the Antarctica through our stories of voyaging and navigation and food gathering. Our relationships with marine life, bird life and the oceans are well recorded through our intergenerational continuum and held in our tribal lore. These are places to which we also have longstanding relationships where we will not intentionally embark on destructive practises. The principle of kaitikaitanga or guardianship is a mantel of responsibility for us and one we willingly share to improve the wellbeing of our oceans and planet. Please do not distort your scientific evidence nor hide behind the intricacies of scientific modelling to position Māori as the problem. I am sure that you can do better than that.”

Need more be said.

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