11836689015_12799b3641_k In December last year, a World Social Science Fellows seminar, held in New Zealand, brought together 21 talented early-career scientists to share and exchange expertise and knowledge on the Risk Interpretation and Action project of the Integrated Research on Disaster Risk programme. The Risk Interpretation and Action framework re-thinks risk communication and meanings of uncertainty, particularly for communities living under the constant threat of disaster. The fellows debated and discussed how to integrate indigenous knowledge into decision- and policy-making for disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation, and how to communicate across scales in the resettlement and reconstruction phases. Visits to Christchurch provided an apt backdrop for the struggles that researchers face when framing such problems.

He said that his lungs didn’t work so well. Every second breath was through pursed lips — like a whistle without the sound.

The head of the Rehua Marae in Christchurch is a not-so-elderly man who, from his demeanour, seems to have seen it all. The Rehua Marae was one of the central places for the response during the earthquake events in Christchurch. An example of community leadership. It was that community that welcomed 25 fellows is December 2012, to discuss disaster risk from the perspective of a tribe that lived through it.

When you are welcomed into a Maori home, it is customary to offer your hosts a gift. Our gift to the tribe was, among others, a Mexican whistle. The whistle, explained one of our Fellows from Mexico, produces the sound of an eagle.

He starts from the beginning with genealogy and heritage. “We are basically nomadic.” His opening exhale was measured — calming and deliberate — as if he was taming a wild beast. Based on practical survival skills, the Maori in Christchurch would go into the jungle as children. “All I needed was a bag, a knife, and something to make fire.” History and the past are very important to him. “You are living genealogy” he would say. His personal history is also the history of his people. His great grandfather signed the contract with the British (when they invaded).

“All indigenous people have their relationship to the environment.” A weird quirk of humanity is that every culture has its creation stories and myths. When the Europeans brought Christianity to the islands, the maori people were quick to give up some of their long-held beliefs for christianity. Both faiths and beliefs were very close at the time.

“There are good and bad all over. Fortunately in New Zealand, the good ones are better than the bad ones.” He attributes this to values of brotherhood and fellowship that run deep through the community. Ones that came into play during the Christchurch earthquake events.

Earthquakes are caused by the god Rūaumoko, the son of the sky (Ranginui) and his wife the Earth (Papatūānuku). Rangi had been separated from Papa, and his tears had flooded the land. Their sons resolved to turn their mother face downwards, so that she and Rangi should not constantly see one another’s sorrow and grieve more. When Papatūānuku was turned over, Rūaumoko was still at her breast, and was carried to the world below. To keep him warm there he was given fire. He is the god of earthquakes and volcanoes, and the rumblings that disturb the land are made by him as he walks about.

When viewed in this context, dealing with disaster and living in risk is a foregone conclusion.

He recounts the earthquake events. “It kept shaking for quite sometime.” The September earthquake wasn’t a catastrophe like the February one. “But it was a sign that the god of earthquakes had a kick!” In comparing the two, he gives it a positive spin — in that September was a preliminary run for a much bigger playing field in February. One that their community would have to deal with. “All these things were training and getting us prepared for the big one in February.”

The marae was open for all those that suffered during the earthquake. During those two years, 10,000 more earthquake events occurred, and the marae became a central point to help communities. “Local communities, neighbours, didn’t know how to survive — maori and hunter gather people knew how to survive. Hunters know what living with danger means.”

Not before long, a network was created. The Maori would get others from all over the region to come down and help — sending down their resources and their people. “Empty their freezers — four hundred crayfish — cook them up — send them in.” The young members of the community created a student army. “The earthquake showed who those natural young leaders are.”

What worked was bringing people together, creating that community to strengthen resolve during the worst of times.

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