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Genetic Engineering and Maori Health

Different ways of managing and understanding knowledge

Interview with Fiona Cram and Glenis Philip-Barbara
Auckland, Aotearoa / New Zealand

Dr. Fiona Cram is the research manager with the International Research Institute for Maori and Indigenous Education (IRI), at the University of Auckland, and has responsibilities for an overview of IRI's research as well as a specialty in Maori health research. Glenis Philip-Barbara is a researcher at IRI. She is responsible for two projects and worked with Dr. Cram on the Maori Genetic Engineering project.

This interview is part of an extended series of articles and interviews gathered by In Motion Magazine in the context of the 2000-2001 hearings of New Zealand's Royal Commission on Genetic Modification. In Motion Magazine travelled around New Zealand with Missouri Rural Crisis Center and National Family Farm Coalition president Bill Christison visiting farmers and community leaders and listening to their views about genetically modified organisms. Currently there are no commercial GE crops in New Zealand. After hearing the recommendations of the commission the New Zealand government will make a decision on whether or not GE crops will be allowed in New Zealand. This interview was conducted February 15, 2001 by Nic Paget-Clarke.

To ask Maori their attitudes and opinions about GE

In Motion Magazine: Why did you take up the study of genetic engineering?

Fiona Cram: When we started in about the middle of 1998, it was because people were starting to talk about food and the genetic engineering of food components. None of what was being discussed was representing a Maori perspective on genetic engineering, so myself and a colleague, Leonie Pihama, put up a proposal to ask Maori their attitudes and opinions about food and genetic engineering. We were asked to expand that to cover food, health and biodiversity. The research was funded by the Ministry of Maori Affairs, Te Puni Kokiri.

We decided to talk to key informants, people who had been in the media talking about these issues, plus people who had a lot of cultural knowledge and could talk around the depth of these things within cultural terms. Also we talked to ordinary folk and asked them how they were thinking through these issues.

In Motion Magazine: How did it go?

Fiona Cram: We produced a very chunky report. We submitted it in May, 2000 before the commission started. It was never really intended as a document or a research piece for the commission. They initially were going to publish a very brief summary of it but after review they were asked to publish the whole thing. We' re still waiting for that to come out.

Two versions of the Treaty

In Motion Magazine: Can you describe the Treaty of Waitangi and how that is important.

Glenis Philip-Barbara: The Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840 between representatives of the British crown and representatives of various tribal groups in Aotearoa. It was a treaty of cession. Prior to the signing of the treaty in 1840, in 1835, a declaration of independence was signed in New Zealand by the united tribes of Aotearoa. It's an important point to make that sovereignty was recognized internationally prior to the signing of the treaty.

There are only three articles to the treaty. The first is that the united tribes of New Zealand cede governorship of New Zealand to the British crown. The second article says that the united tribes of New Zealand will retain chiefly authority over all lands, territories, biodiversity if you like, forests, fisheries. Chiefly authority would remain with Maori. The third article said that we as the tribes of Aotearoa would be accorded all the rights and privileges of British citizens.

That's the deal as we understand it and that's the deal as it is reported in Te Reo Maori, which is the Maori language. But there are two versions of the treaty. The other is in English. The English version says that Maori cede sovereignty, article one. The second article says that Maori retain governorship of the properties, lands, forests, fisheries. And the third says yes, you can have all the rights and privileges of British citizenry and we (Maori)are promised the protection of the queen.

Right from the outset there was a huge difference in understanding. If you were to apply international law to that treaty it says quite clearly that you go with the Maori version.

Fiona Cram: Which the majority of tribes signed.

Glenis Philip-Barbara: There are some 500 signatories on the Maori version and thirty signatories on the English version. They gathered a few signatures at Waitangi and then naval officers took the treaty on tour and collected signatures.

It's important to know that the treaty was taken on tour around the country. When they headed down to Tainui around what is now the Hamilton area, they "forgot" to pack the Maori version. They only had the English version. So they grabbed the nearest missionary and said, "You've got to do an on-the-spot translation." Which resulted in Maori at Port Waikato signing the English version of Te Tiriti o Waitangi following the verbal translation.

Kingitanga Movement

Things weren't done particularly well and that set the scene for what we have today. The two groups right from the outset had very different understandings of what was being ceded and what was being gained and so conflict has reigned.

Fiona Cram: In the first ten, fifteen years after the signing of the treaty, Maori flourished. Tribes came down from the hilltops from fortified pa, fortresses, and engaged in the economy with the Europeans, the British settlers. It was Maori who controlled the shipping fleets, shipping flour and wheat and produce. It was Maori who were feeding the settlers. And thriving from that.

Then what happened was Waikato emerged with the Kingitanga movement. If you start talking about having a king, and you've got a queen in England, you're heading for trouble. Especially when you start closing off your borders and your king says, "Sorry folks, there's no more land for sale here."

The reason for the closing down of land sales was not because Maori did not want to sell land it was because of the law that said the government will buy the land off Maori and then sell it on to the settlers. That was the main form of government revenue. Buying land very cheaply from Maori and selling it at an enormous profit. Maori weren't allowed to do that. So in the end they said no more land sales. That's when war started. We lost and they kept throwing more and more British soldiers at us. In payment for being so uppity, the government confiscated large tracts of land and re-positioned tribal groups onto reserves and unhealthy parts of the country.

Completely devastated Maori health

Fiona Cram.
Fiona Cram. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.
Fiona Cram: Maori were put on swampy land that was bound to effect people's health. Or un-farmable hillsides. It completely devastated Maori health. It devastated the economy. The child mortality rate amongst the tribes that lost the largest tracts of lands, those child mortality rates are the highest. That's a sign of the hardship those people were experiencing.

Also there were lots of policies introduced stereotyping Maori as uncivilized, and in need of education. There was a government policy of assimilation. People were reduced to living on swampy ground and their children were dying. So what do you do, you don't actually install a public health system, you say, "Oh, the mothers are neglectful. We need to teach young girls in school how to be better mothers." That's your intervention. And we still live with it. This was only three or four generations ago.

When people tried to engage in peaceful protest like in Taranaki, they didn't fight, they said, "This is our land" and the protest was farming their land. When the government tried to come and take the land by putting in picks to mark out land for settlers, they took away those picks. Finally the government got so pissed off, they came, ransacked the land, and deported all those people down to Dunedin, miles and miles away from home. They made the men live in caves and build roads.

There's a road around the peninsula in Dunedin and Otago that the tourists never actually hear the story of when they're winding round the road in their fancy air-conditioned bus. It's freezing down there, and men were standing in water building that road. The ones that died are buried in that road. You can go and see the cave that they had to live in while they were doing it.

Glenis Philip-Barbara: And running alongside all of that is hundreds of pieces of legislation set up to take land, legally.

In Motion Magazine: How much of the land is still Maori?

Glenis Philip-Barbara: All of Aotearoa is Maori land, however in terms of what the current administration 'recognizes' as Maori land there is less than 6% of the total land mass that is held under Maori title.

Fiona Cram: You've got a situation where Maori outnumbered the British ten to one at the time of the signing of the treaty. All the talk by the government now of what the Maori meant when they signed the treaty is just stupid because no-one who outnumbers the settlers ten to one is going to say we want to give you everything and you can govern us. It makes no sense.

Glenis Philip-Barbara: When you look at the structure of society, the legislative process, the parliamentary process, you see that democracy isn't really introduced properly until post 1900. By the turn of the century, by 1900, Maori numbers were at an all time low. It was a common cry that Maori were a dying race. Our population was down to 40,000.

From ten to one to what are we now, 15%. I remember hearing an account of a Maori man who lived around Wellington harbor. He talked about sitting on the hill and seeing boat after boat after boat arriving in the harbor and hordes of English peoples spewing out of this boat and onto the land and dispersing and he wondered how much dispersal there could still be after so many years.

Constitutional change

Glenis Philip-Barbara: That's the ground work of the Treaty. Fundamentally, the constitution of New Zealand, as it stands today, is still hotly contested and this brings us right back to the commission now. The group of which Fiona and I are a part, a group of Maori women from around the country, we are making our submission to the commission on the 27th and fundamentally we are calling for constitutional change. We can not even begin to deal with these kinds of issues in the deep and meaningful way in which they need to be dealt with until we have fixed what it is that governs this country. How we share the governance of this country. Basically, we are saying we need for you people to honor the treaty. We need constitutional change and then, when we have set the groundwork that is right and fair, then lets talk about GMO's, GE.

In Motion Magazine: What about the right to vote?

Glenis Philip-Barbara: The right to vote comes in with the constitutional arrangements.

In Motion Magazine: Were Maori given the right to vote from the beginning?

Glenis Philip-Barbara: No.

Fiona Cram: Only if they could prove ownership of 50 acres of land.

Glenis Philip-Barbara: Individual ownership.

Fiona Cram: And individual ownership is a clash of philosophies about ownership when it's collectively owned and held in trust for future generations. It's not something that an individual owned themselves.

In Motion Magazine: So when did one-person-one-vote come into effect?

Glenis Philip-Barbara: Alongside the time that legislation demanded that Maori individualize title to land. When Maori were numerically superior in terms of occupation of our lands, when the settler government was first established, we were given 4 seats in the House. Maori representatives from north, south, east and west. Maori could only vote for those seats. Screwed from the beginning. We only got rid of that six years ago.

Whatever the system is that is introduced, we are not actually a part of thinking through and strategizing and creating systems to represent the entire population of this country.

Racism in society

Fiona Cram: In health, we are developing an analysis of deprivation. There's a group in Wellington who took our last census and divided the country up in to census blocks. They took nine measures of the census, such as "Do you have a telephone?", things which say how deprived or well-off you are, and they gave each of those census blocks a decile rating from one to ten. Maori who are least deprived actually have a higher mortality rate than non-Maori who are most deprived in this society. What we are seeing within health are arguments that say, that's not about individuals taking responsibility for their own health, that's about racism in society, about addressing structural racism which stops people from getting assistance within the institutions within this country. It's about interpersonal racism because people believe that Maori are, "Kind of musical but they are a bit lazy. They don't really look after their kids very well and they don't really care much for education. Most of them are unemployed and smoking dope." That about sums it up.

Glenis Philip-Barbara: It's front page of the newspaper most days.

Fiona Cram: The other thing is internalized racism. If a group of people have been told these messages for so long, in the most deprived areas they are going to start believing those messages. When it comes to health, if you believe you are like that, if you encounter that interpersonal racism in an institution such as a hospital that doesn't care for you, you are going to think it's something about you not deserving healthcare, or you deserving to be unhealthy.

Genetic engineering and Maori health

In Motion Magazine: How do you think GE will effect Maori health?

Fiona Cram: With respect to GE, one of the arguments we make is if this country accepts the genetic engineering of crops and a GE component in food, even with labeling, we know that all those foods that the wealthy don't want are going to be dumped on the most deprived - of whom the majority are brown, Maori and Pacific Islanders. We already know that because if you go into these deprived communities and look at the food on the supermarket shelf it's expensive, the meat is bad, the vegie's are dreadful.

Glenis Philip-Barbara.
Glenis Philip-Barbara. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.
Glenis Philip-Barbara: Thinking through GE, one of the things that I was blown away by during the interviews for this project, was when we went out and talked to groups of Maori people, young and old and medium, and women and men, every interview that I did started off by them saying to me, "I don't know anything about this". And then as we got in and explored some of the areas that we are talking about, the information that they had just blew me away. Most of our people's analysis of the impact of GE and GM on Maori health was really clear.

Colonization in the new millennium

Around the areas of health and diversity, it was really about colonization reshaping and reforming itself into the new millennium. They are very clear that our diversity, our biodiversity is under threat. I remember one person saying to me "Oh Christ, they came and stole all our land, they took all our stuff, and now they've come for our blood. What's going on?" That was the level of analysis that was coming through in the interviews.

I was just getting so sick and tired of reading in major dailies that Maori people don't have a clear understanding of the science of it. But I found within this research project quite the contrary was true. Maori had a very clear analysis of what was going on and the impacts on our communities.

Fiona Cram: One of the biggest difficulties that we have is convincing the scientists that what they believe is just one world view. No better, no worse, than a Maori world view. It isn't the be all and end all. It isn't an objective fact that they are just as objective as anyone else. They have a spiritual component as well because they don't know, they just have a belief. And here they are laughing at us because we have beliefs.

In Motion Magazine: How is genetic engineering going to further colonize the Maori people?

Glenis Philip-Barbara: As far as the people are concerned it is just another form of theft.

In Motion Magazine: Do you mean patents?

Glenis Philip-Barbara: For example, the taking of Maori genetic information to actually create pharmaceuticals or other products.

Fiona Cram: At the moment, Maori scientists are out there working with three tribes looking for the genetic basis of Type-2 diabetes. Type-2 is non-insulin dependent diabetes for which there are no known indicators apart from social economic ones. People suffer from Type-2 diabetes because their diet is crap. They are poor folk. They live in poor houses. They are over crowded. They are stressed because they live in a racist society and they get Type-2 diabetes. Here's all this investment going in to looking for the pill, the genetic basis that will inform how to make the pill that you can give to these people to stop them having Type-2 diabetes, when it's really about a political argument that says why aren't we investing in a healthier life for these people, for these children.

Of the people who are suffering from Type-2 diabetes, the Maori and Pacific people are ten years younger than non- Maori. Yet, when North Health Hospital suggested that they do a campaign aimed specifically at Maori and Pacific people aged in their late 30s and early 40s who are at risk from Type-2 diabetes, some fool took it to the human rights commission and said, "You can't do that. You can't do a campaign just for those people."

It's the same with the economic reforms that have happened in the last fifteen years which have undermined social structures. In the late '80s, 40,000 Maori were made unemployed. So what did the government do? It changed the way it measured unemployment. It changed the census so that we couldn't actually measure the impact of this economic policy. You've now got all these 30- and 40-year-olds experiencing worse dietary conditions than their parents ever did because they are even poorer now.

"Supermarkets are bad for you"

In Motion Magazine: Tell me more about how GE is going to further deteriorate this situation?

Glenis Philip-Barbara: Just have a look at food. I had a women say to me, she said, "Look, I remember in the days of my grandparents and great grandparents, we weren't a sick people. We were a healthy people. We ate good whole food that we grew ourselves from seed stock that had come through generations." In my own family, the (yeast) bug for making bread in my family is 120 years old. The kumara seed stock, the sweet potato seed stock. We have taro growing at home that has been looked after and tended right through the generations.

Her observation was at the time when we ate from those things that we know, that we've taken responsibility for nurturing and looking after and growing and replenishing year after year, she remembers very clearly how, at that time, people were healthy. "But now, ever since they've built those supermarkets, our people are getting cancer. Our people are getting diabetes." She's come to the conclusion, I'm talking about an 85-year-old woman, she's come to the conclusion that those supermarkets are really bad for you and we should just stay out of them.

I tried to move her along a little bit more. I said, "What's the problem with the supermarkets?" She looked at me like I was a real thicko. She said, "But we don't know where the food comes from." And I said, "Yes, but you can read the packet." She said, "Yes, but those packets don't tell the truth. They tell lies about where their stuff comes from. You can't believe those packets because if those packets are anything like the newspaper then you know that's all rubbish."

She has a good healthy disrespect for the manner in which Western society, as she sees it, gathers and organizes food. In her own life time, in her memory, she's drawn a correlation between the rise of the supermarket culture and the ill health. She was talking about that, as I understood it, as neo-colonialism. She talked about the epidemics that swept through the country here in the late 1800s and the early 1900s -- influenza and TB. Her analysis of that was, "Those people are just germy. They brought a whole lot of stuff here we didn't have the mechanisms to deal with because it's not of this land." Her analysis is really simple but I thought it was quite poignant.

If you have a look at the way in which the supermarket culture has taken hold in this country it's quite astounding.

I had another younger women say to me, "Do you remember when the budget cans of spaghetti started turning up in the supermarket? I always wondered how they managed to make a can of spaghetti for 77 cents when I've always paid at least a dollar forty. How could they halve the production costs? Then I started reading the stuff about GM crops and how the yield time is shorter so things don't take as long and production costs aren't as high and the profit margin is bigger. They are feeding as us all the shit."


The Waikato area. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.
The Waikato area. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.
Fiona Cram: It's not knowing where your food is coming from. There's a belief that you shouldn't be tampering on the genetic level and doing something that is not going to happen naturally. You are interfering with the genealogy of whatever you are tampering with. When you start interfering with the genealogy of something, you are interfering with the spirit of something. When you come from a culture where people believe that everything has a spirit, a life force, when you start tampering with that, there's got to be repercussions in some form, somewhere.

ERMA (Environmental Risk Management Authority) wants to pin down what those repercussions will be. When you insert human genes into a cow, how many deaths will there be? You know these things are going to happen. We know things are going to start going wrong because you are tampering with things you don't understand. You are tampering with the whole balance of nature.

You've got that side of things. You've got that you don't know where our food is coming from. The possible impact on biodiversity. Biogenetic crops. The cross-fertilization of those crops.

Ownership rights

And then you've got what happens when the world finds out that there's a 125-year-old bread bug sitting on her mum's bench. There are things like intellectual and cultural property.

There's a claim at the moment before the Waitangi Tribunal which was set up to look at Treaty-based claims. The Wai262 claim about flora and fauna.

The claim is for the ownership rights. Under the Treaty, Maori were guaranteed sovereignty over flora and fauna. You can't have a French company coming in and grabbing a little tree and saying that they've altered the genetic structure enough to warrant a patent on it. It bio-prospecting. It's appalling. Currently, we have no legislative fence around the country to stop it.

Glenis Philip-Barbara: A good example of that on a different level, is the use of Maori image and art forms as trademarks. For example, the logo for the Commission. The head of this is drawn from Maori mythology and represents a spiritual guardian to our people. They've gone and transposed it on to the double helix. Things like this happen all the time. There's no mechanism by which Maori as a larger group or particular tribal groups are consulted about the use of not just our lands, forest and fisheries, but our art forms, our mythology, our waterways. The New Zealand army calls itself Ngati Tumatauenga They've named themselves for one of our gods of our mythology in our history. There was no consultation around that. It's a free for all. Look at the tail of Air New Zealand. It has the Koru shape on it.

In terms of intellectual property it's a huge issue that hasn't even begun to be addressed. What we've seen is an assumption that is pushed ahead by the government in this country that we are all one people and that Maori people are New Zealanders, therefore the government owns and has patent and right over all of our biodiversity. And everything that we own and create.

These things are sacred

The icon that the Commission have chosen to represent themselves is a really good example of what it is that our people are actually protesting about -- the taking of our blood products to re-configure them into something else.

I grew up as a little girl knowing that you need to be careful with your hair, your fingernails and your blood products. We were brought up knowing that all of these things are sacred. And that you risk the potential, if somebody else can get their hands on these things, that they can do you harm. We knew that as little kids growing up. My kids know that.

As I've been doing this research I thought, "How did they know that? What was that about?" My understanding of that was spiritual. If someone was able to get those personal elements of yourself then they could make you sick spiritually and physically. And I've seen that many times. But I never actually imagined that it would come down to this. The actual taking of your hair, nails and blood.

Fiona Cram: In so many communities the scientists will go into the community and the story that they will tell about why they want those things is that it is for the good of humanity - the common good. And if they find a cure it will be a cure for all. Well, you know our communities have so much good will and love of human kind that they go, "Yes, we want to help." Yet we know damn well if there's a drug we're not going to be able to afford it.

I heard on the radio the other day that once they've mapped the human genome, we'll be able to cure all human disease. But we can also feed the world at the moment with the food stocks but do we do that? No.

We can cure all human disease. Will we do it? No. Not unless there's a commercial imperative to do so.

Trained in the knowledge

Glenis Philip-Barbara: Some of our people have a good political analysis of what is going on. They understand very clearly that when people talk about the common good, that the common doesn't actually include us. We reside outside of that definition of common. We're uncommon.

But, within the more traditional forms of knowledge or understanding it is understood that there are two levels of knowledge. The knowledge of the sacred and the knowledge of the profane - for want of putting in a better way because I can't think of it in English - that knowledge that resides in the profane basket is there and freely available for everyone and no level of expertise or specialism is needed to actually access that knowledge. It should and can be shared freely among people because it will benefit all of the people all of the time.

But in terms of the knowledge of the sacred, people had to have a particular level of skill and ability to be able to manipulate, utilize, share, or administer that knowledge. Old Maori schooling systems, education systems, trained men and women in that knowledge, and in the sharing and dispersal and protection and use of that knowledge. Our genetic material, our blood, hair, and nails, all of those elements that make us human, spiritual, physical, metaphysical beings are all held sacred. When people come for your blood ...

The people who were trained in the knowledge were 'outlawed' in New Zealand in 1907 with a piece of legislation could the Tohunga Suppression Act. It was outlawed, the practice of Maori medicines, ways of knowing, spiritual practices, prophesying, all of that was outlawed in New Zealand,

Fiona Cram: Maori women were not allowed to breast-feed in public or adopt children.

Glenis Philip-Barbara and Fiona Cram. Painting by Robyn Kahukiwa. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke
Glenis Philip-Barbara and Fiona Cram. Painting by Robyn Kahukiwa. The woman depicted in the painting is named "Hina". Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.
Glenis Philip-Barbara: So when people come for your blood, many of us don't actually feel qualified to make an informed decision about handing it over because it doesn't reside in the realm of common knowledge. It actually resides in the realm of the sacred. We're very clear that because we don't have all of the information about the possible scenarios, that because the research hasn't been done, because we don't know what the possible outcomes are, we must at this time say, "No".

Different ways of managing and understanding knowledge

It's not about the science, it's about what the implications will be for humankind. The thing that disturbs our people about what is going on in genetic research at the moment is that these researchers don't know, they haven't yet been able to prove that they understand the complexities of the science that they are dabbling in. It's too imprecise. It's too ad hoc and it leaves too much to chance. Within the training that we've grown with, we know that you don't get to do that stuff until you are absolutely sure about the outcomes of what you are doing.

One of my grandmothers said, "What are these ignorant scientists doing mucking around with that stuff? They are attempting to manipulate that that is sacred. What are they doing? They haven't had proper training, they don't know what they are doing."

Fiona Cram: And they don't know how to pray if they get into trouble. Because they won't pray - they don't believe in that. They believe in science and science will be the destruction of the planet.

Glenis Philip-Barbara: She's very clear about the kind of training needing to incorporate all those elements of life, not just the physical, but the spiritual and the mental and all else in between, All those other things. All of those are taken into account, in whatever work was done in the old days around healing. She looks as these people - she calls them kuare which means ignorant, "What are these ignoramuses doing mucking around? -They are not getting my blood. I'm not giving my blood. God knows what they will do with it."

There are very different ways of managing and understanding knowledge. When those things collide, as a collective of indigenous peoples, our biggest response is, "Wait a minute. You're going too fast. You haven't checked it out properly. You haven't done your homework. Your groundwork isn't secure. What is the overarching objective of this project? And if it comes back to money, as it often does, a lot of our people are saying ...oh yes, we know this is the single biggest thing that motivates the white imagination.

A different form of risk assessment

Fiona Cram: We are not stuck in the past. Our culture is not static, it develops. Thirty years ago people were very anti-organ transplants but as we've gone down and developed more of an understanding people now talk about, "Well, yes. we understand what it means in terms of its cultural implications. We understand organ transplantation because its the same genealogy involved." There's been a development in terms of the culture. We are not asking for things to stop. We are asking for a different form of risk assessment. A form of risk assessment which actually makes sense to people, and not just indigenous people. There are lots of ordinary white people out there who have a gut sense that something is wrong, and talking to them about the absence of any sort of spiritual component in the science would make immense sense to them.

Also see:

Published in In Motion Magazine May 31, 2001.

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