Government's myrtle rust response failing to genuinely involve iwi, Ngāti Porou kaitiaki says

There are calls for improved public engagement and genuine involvement of iwi in the Government’s long-term management response to the windborne pathogen myrtle rust.

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While there’s been investment in science there are claims the response has failed to include Māori in decision making. Source: 1 NEWS

“For the average person in New Zealand, they recall that there was something going on about myrtle rust but it's not in the public eye and there's really not anybody putting it in the public eye,” Project Crimson chairperson Joris De Bres told 1 NEWS.

Myrtle rust threatens 37 of Aotearoa’s native trees in the myrtle family, including pōhutukawa, rāta and mānuka. Of those, 25 species aren’t found anywhere else in the world.

The pathogen infects new growth on trees, and in serious cases can cause tree death.

The first reported adult tree deaths from the disease were ramarama found in Te Araroa last year.

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Myrtle rust having catastrophic impact on east coast, environmentalist warns Source: Breakfast

“I think what we're looking for is some way in which local government and national government and the community can coordinate and have leadership and a focal point where the information on the spread of the myrtle rust is gathered and disseminated - I don't think that's a big cost but it does need some form of national focus… I don't think it's not affordable, I just don't quite know why it's fallen off the agenda and really for something as major as this, it shouldn't fall off the agenda, I don't care what else is going on,” Mr De Bres said.

The Government allocated $23 million into research aiming to combat the impact of the pathogen in Aotearoa between 2017 and 2018.

Under attack: The fight to protect taonga tree species from myrtle rust

“There isn’t a lead agency, in fact what MPI has done is undertaken to maintain a website to gather information that is made available from elsewhere,” Mr De Bres said.

He said the myrtle rust science plan and overall strategy released in 2019 outlining what needed to happen to effectively manage myrtle rust “seems to have fallen by the wayside.”

“The scientific research is carrying on and there's good work being done there and it's important, vital work but the kind of public involvement, public awareness, public engagement side of this just fell away and so although there's a strategy no one owns the strategy and parts of it are simply not being implemented,” he said.

It’s vital for scientists researching the pathogen to know where the infection’s spread in Aotearoa but there’s no coordinated surveillance response.

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The East Coast town is home to a range of myrtle tree species including cherished pōhutukawa and economically significant mānuka. Source: 1 NEWS

The disease is considered widespread in the North Island and in parts of the South Island.

The public’s asked to report sightings on the iNaturalist phone application.

The science plan estimated an additional $40 million on top of current investment was needed for research to ensure the vision of "the mauri of myrtle plants and dependent ecosystems is safeguarded and sustained" could be achieved.

“The strategy is due for review next year, there isn’t a mechanism right now for it to be reviewed and there isn’t a mechanism to implement it,” Mr De Bres said.

Ngāti Porou kaitiaki Tina Ngata said the myrtle rust response is an example of how the Government’s central approach to conservation fails to address “the outreaches, you know the outposts of our areas and how they’re impacted by these problems.”

She said the Government’s myrtle rust response has failed to genuinely involve iwi.

“These things need to be co-developed from the outset.

“They're in violation of Te Tiriti … it would be a further violation if they weren't to involve local community and hapū because hapū hold the mana whenua upon which Te Tiriti is based,” Ngata said.

She said the Government needs to fund response teams that live in communities and researchers need to shape science agendas and questions with communities including iwi.

“I wouldn't call it a partnership arrangement yet but there are some who I think we could probably work with but it's still been over-archingly experiences where people have either not respected our positions around it or been mindful or careful in a way around our positions and different sensitivities around these issues,” Ngata said.

Biosecurity Minister Damien O’Connor and Acting Conservation Minister Dr Ayesha Verrall declined to be interviewed by 1 NEWS.

A spokesperson for O’Connor said in a statement both ministers have asked MPI, DOC and MBIE to work together on advice for what actions can be taken to improve the myrtle rust response.

"That advice is expected to be with ministers in the next month," he stated.

The spokesperson said the science plan was created through consultation with more than 50 researchers, stakeholder groups and Māori and the science advisory group supporting the plan includes Māori.

A spokesperson for Verrall said in a statement DOC "is not directly responsible for the Government response to myrtle rust" but plays an integral part.

"In response to the changes in disease progression this season, DOC is investigating targeted myrtle rust monitoring and surveillance, aiming to prepare for the next disease season in October," the spokesperson said.

She stated that there are currently no effective tools to eradicate or control myrtle rust once it’s established in the ngahere (forest).