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Matene me te rakau

“Be the Maori Forester of the East Coast”, 23-year-old Matene Blandford wrote in his journal in 1993, when he was at Canterbury University studying for his Bachelor of Forestry Science. Jump to 2019, he is well on the way to achieving this goal. Kayla Dalrymple caught up with Matene to find out more.

Matene Blandford is the co-owner and managing director of Rata Forest Management Ltd.

Rata, established on August 1 last year, is the new kid on the forestry block, specialising in harvest planning, forest engineering projects, resource consent assessments, environmental compliance, Maori landowners’ forestry land use and financial analysis.

Matene holds a Bachelor of Forestry Science (Honours), and a post-graduate management diploma from the University of Waikato, paired with more than 25 years’ industry experience.

His forestry roots were planted on home soil, as a member of a pruning gang working in the Whareratas, then making his way up to positions including Whangapoua Forest manager (Coromandel) and East Coast region engineering manager for Ernslaw One Ltd.

“A large chunk of my business is corporate forestry project work and Gisborne District Council contracts, but my passion is to supply valued services for Maori landowners,” he says.

Of dual Rongowhakaata and Ngai Tamanuhiri descent — “equally yoked” as Matene puts it — he cites Rata’s driving force as a desire for Maori to benefit from and succeed in the industry.

“I would love to work with a team of Maori professional foresters and engineers, and we are just hitting it, it would be so much fun.”

Maori make up a large percentage of the forestry workforce but are under-represented in leadership, meaning Maori benefit from the industry but miss out on the biggest ticket clips at the top, something Matene plans to change.

Wharerata connectionsHe has the chops to back up his vision, as a past Ngai Tamanuhiri Tutu PoroPoro Trust Board chairman, and present Wharerata Forest Limited board chairman.

His grandfather Matene Pohatu planted the Wharerata Forest in the 1960s and his whanau have worked there in some capacity since then.

Matene spoke about the Wharerata Forest in his presentation, Circular Economy in a Maori Forestry Context, at Activate Tairawhiti’s Circular Economy Conference in May. Activate is the region’s economic development agency.

Before the Ngai Tamanuhiri settlement in 2012, the Crown owned the 8500 hectare block, with Juken New Zealand as the contemporary lease holder.

Since ownership has transferred to Ngai Tamanuhiri and the Tatau Tatau o te Wairoa iwi cluster under the Wharerata Trust Board, Juken has had to re-apply for the lease annually.

“We held a wananga in 2014 with our owners,” says Matene.

“We are a fisher iwi, so whatever activities we allow on our lands will have an impact on our fisheries.

“As tangata whenua we have a responsibility to provide for our people. We respect the fact that mana whenua resides with us and therefore are cognisant that all decision-making will flow back to us.”

Out of the wananga came core principles under which the board now operates — protect land and waterways, biodiversity, cultural identity and affiliation, meaningful employment and business opportunities and fair and reasonable return.

The result is the continued use of the Wharerata land for forestry, based on a broader set of principles founded in tikanga and equally reflected in Rata’s ethos.

“I try to bring an environmental conscience to what I do,” says Matene.

His desire for sustainability comes in part from his immediate whanau. He and wife of 25 years and Rata co-owner Sue-Ann Blandford, want to leave a thriving region for their five children — Tumuaki, 23, Bonnie, 21, Amy, 18, Matene Junior, 14 and Eva, 10.

“I love this industry, but things could be better.” Matene says.

This attitude also has its roots in Rata’s namesake in the Maori legend Rata me te Rakau, Rata and the Tree.

In the legend Rata sets about building a waka to help his people sail safely across the Great Ocean of Kiwa, to the Fish of Maui. Two days in a row he fells the mightiest tree and returns to find it upright once more. Frustrated, on the third day Rata hides in the bushes and sees the children of Tane Mahuta’s (Maori god of the forest) piecing the tree back together.

When he asks the birds and insects why, they scold him for not thanking Tane. Ashamed, Rata begs forgiveness, as he only meant to help his people. He performs a karakia for Tane and returns to his village.

To many it’s a myth but to Matene it’s “a good Maori forestry story”.

“It’s about following processes and showing gratitude; it has really helped steer us as a business.”

Advice has come both from Maori ancestors and more recent figures, namely the late, much respected and loved John Ruru.

John was a Te Aitanga a Mahaki and Turanga iwi leader. Among his many achievements and services to the region was his pivotal work in the formation of Te Runanga o Turanganui-a-Kiwa.

“He was the man, the original authority for Maori forestry on the coast, he was it. When I finished up at university, I went and saw him for advice,” says Matene.

John was so influential in the development of local forestry, he was awarded an MNZOM in the 2006 New Year Honours List.

“He pulled me in for a talk and told me to go out and learn all I could in the industry, then use those skills to benefit all Maori — so that’s what I’ve done.”

Fast-forward 20 or so years, Matene and “Uncle John” had the same chat, except this time it was about starting Rata.

“He was super supportive. He did say one thing though — going out on your own, be prepared to do a lot of mahi (work) for aroha (love), and man he was right.”

Luckily for the region, Matene has aroha by the logging truck load. Aroha for the industry, whenua, awa, moana and ultimately aroha for his people.

The legend of Rata didn’t end with the karakia. The next day Tane Mahuta’s children carried a beautiful hollowed-out waka to his village as a gift.

As for Rata, he went on to become a well-respected community figure, leading his people on his waka into new adventures, safety and prosperity.

Sounds familiar.

¦ Matene me te rakau — Matene and the tree


LEGENDARY: Matene Blandford looks to the ancient story of Rata and the tree as a guiding force for his fledgling forestry business. Pictures supplied
WHANAU FUTURE: Matene Blandford and his wife Sue-Ann are determined to leave a legacy for their five children, and beyond.
HOT DESKING: Matene Blandford (left) with fellow users of the Launch! co-working site.