Skip to content

Soil health and resilience: oneone ora, tangata ora

Funded by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment's Endeavour Fund
The ongoing capacity of soil ecosystems to maintain the services they provide is fundamental to our economic, cultural, social and environmental well-being.

Whakapapa defines what a healthy soil is, it comes from our whakapapa, we define ourselves from our pepeha, our land. So, whatever happens to the soil happens to me, when we are disenfranchised from our soil, our land, it also affects our physical and mental health. The indicators and measures of soil health can be seen in the place names, the geographical whakapapa.” Interview with Hema Wihongi (Kiri Reihana 2018)

Soil health is generally defined as the continued capacity of the soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals and humans and Kibblewhite (2018) adds that it is a measure of how close the condition of a soil is to its optimal level for supporting specified services. A wider view of soil health, one supported by the Māori worldview, is to take a holistic approach and consider the multifunctional capacity of the soil system to deliver all its functions.

This MBIE Endeavour funded science programme, Soil health and resilience, led by Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research, is exploring how a science-based programme around soil health can be made more meaningful and holistic by engaging with a diverse group of stakeholders that includes iwi/hapū, Government, industry, and landowners.

Research Aim 1: Resilience and health of soil

Research Aim 1 is focused on the resilience and health of soil. The programme is a collaboration with Plant & Food Research, AgResearch, the University of Waikato, the University of Auckland, and Auckland University of Technology. Long term experiments and land use comparisons using scientific methods for measuring soil health are being carried out as part of this programme. A variety of soil characteristics in diverse soil types are being measured to determine how different soils change under land use intensification.

Find out more

Research Aim 2: Soil health from a Te Ao Māori perspective

Research Aim 2 explores our understanding of soil health from a Te Ao Māori perspective; focusing on soil health concepts of the mana, mauri, whakapapa, wairua and hau of soil – as expressed in the above interview extract by Hema Wihongi. Her perspective is typical of the Māori worldview where soil has mana and people are strongly connected through their ancestry (whakapapa) to the soil. We are collaborating with a number of Māori researchers and practitioners, Māori organisations, collectives, and landowners who have a wide pool of knowledge that includes traditional, historic and contemporary mātauranga Māori. By identifying frameworks, concepts, language, terms, assessment techniques, and indicators from a Te Ao Māori perspective we can determine more holistic ways to describe and assess soil health that is integrative, inclusive, and collaborative.

Find out more

Research Aim 3: An integrated framework for soil health

The third Research Aim is focused on connecting various knowledge forms (including Māori knowledge and perspectives) with soil science to develop an integrated framework for soil health. Concepts such as “well-being” are being explored from a soil health perspective. Soils form an integral part of our social and cultural fabric and are fundamentally important to human and societal well-being. A well-being approach can provide a systematic way of navigating diverse societal values by framing these in terms of the well-being benefits people derive from soil ecosystems. This type of approach could provide a more diverse and inclusive knowledge base and perspective to better inform the development of integrative policy. Additionally, a well-being approach will lead to improved management and decision-making of land resources and soils in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Stakeholder engagement is a key part of this third research aim and to date, a stakeholder survey, workshops and interviews have contributed to our soil health knowledge.

Find out more

New publications

Achieving soil health in Aotearoa New Zealand through a pluralistic values‑based framework: mauri ora ki te whenua, mauri ora ki te tangata

Stronge DC, Kannemeyer RL, Harmsworth GR, Stevenson BA 2023. Achieving soil health in Aotearoa New Zealand through pluralistic values‑based framework: mauri ora ki te whenua, mauri ora ki te tangata. Sustainability Science. DOI: 10.1007/s11625-022-01269-x

Globally, soil policy and management have been based on a limited understanding of values and perspectives, and mainly dominated by a Western-centric soil science perspective. Further, this understanding has tended to be highly focused on instrumental values – particularly the soil’s productive potential and use. In this paper, we use the Nature Futures Framework (NFF) to analyse how Aotearoa New Zealand’s agricultural productive sectors express their relationship with soil and soil health. Our analysis highlights the multidimensional nature of soil values across society. Importantly, the results are consistent with work undertaken on Indigenous Māori perspectives of soil and soil health. Māori perspectives strongly connect soil to their people and take a holistic or well-being approach to soil. We then present a soil health and well-being framework that can incorporate a plurality of values from people of diverse backgrounds, including landowners, industry, farmers, and Indigenous peoples. We use a bicultural model approach – “waka taurua” – to demonstrate how the plurality of values from non-Indigenous and Indigenous groups in Aotearoa New Zealand can be used to shape process, dialogue and understanding, to develop shared goals to maintain and enhance the soil resource, and to achieve soil health and human well-being. There needs to be a shift in how soil policy and management is approached to achieve international calls to manage soils sustainably. Our approach using the NFF indicates that people assign multiple, co-existing values to soil. The resulting dialogue on values enriches our understanding of soils and soil health, and our relationships and connections with nature, improves the way we define threats and risks, and will lead to more targeted actions to achieve desired sustainable outcomes.

Te Mahi Oneone Hua Parakore: A Māori Soil Sovereignty and Wellbeing Handbook

Te Mahi Oneone Hua Parakore book cover

Te Mahi Oneone Hua Parakore book cover

A new book by Jessica Hutchings and Jo Smith entitled “Te Mahi Oneone Hua Parakore: A Māori Soil Sovereignty and Wellbeing Handbook” has been published. Their book provides a Te Ao Māori perspective of soil health and wellbeing and emphasises the mana of soil as a statement of Māori soil sovereignty and soil health. The book explores central concepts such as whakapapa, mana, mauri, hau, taonga tuku iho, māra kai, wairua, and hua parakore which help us with fundamental understandings of what soil health and wellbeing means for Māori (locally, regionally, nationally) and the use of mātauranga Māori and values in shaping this Te Ao Māori worldview. The book gives a range of practical illustrations and examples from across Aotearoa-New Zealand to demonstrate strong links between soils, food/kai, mana (authority, status, self-determination) and wellbeing.

Hutchings J and Smith J. 2020. Te Mahi Oneone Hua Parakore: A Māori Soil Sovereignty and Wellbeing Handbook. 190p. ISBN 9780473516192. Free Range Press.

Order book from FreeRange Press

A Well-being approach to soil health – Insights from Aotearoa New Zealand

Stronge DC, Stevenson BA, Harmsworth GR, Kannemeyer RL. 2020. A Well-being approach to soil health – Insights from Aotearoa New Zealand. Sustainability 12 (18) 7719. DOI: 10.3390/su12187719

People and nature are intimately connected, and the human dimensions that shape the way ecosystem services are valued and used are just as critical to the sustainability of soils as the services themselves. Reframing soil health to focus on the well-being benefits people obtain from nature rather than the ecosystem processes that give rise to them would better inform soil health decision-making. In this paper we discuss how a well-being approach can improve understanding of soil health with respect to societal goals and needs. Understanding the benefits people value from soil, who benefits and how, would help develop more equitable soil health policies and support better decision-making in New Zealand and globally.

Key contacts


Kibblewhite MG 2018. Soil and soil health: An overview In: Reicosky D ed. Managing soil health for sustainable agriculture. Vol I. Fundamentals. Burleigh Dodds Science Publishing.