Cloud nine on the Manawatu

In 1952, a returned serviceman, Bill Pearson, who had grown up on the West Coast of the South Island, raised what he saw as the indifference of New Zealanders, especially farmers, to the beauty of their country and their lack of stewardship over their land.[1] With its riches in coal, gold and forestry and its deep but often problematic alluvial soils, the West Coast was to become a major battleground for the nation’s emerging conservation ethic. Today the worst fears of many Coasters – that the rain forests would be ‘locked up’ as parks, reserves and protected forest – have been realised.[2] In the decade since 2004 jobs in the forestry industry have fallen – from over 500 to about six. The loose term ‘tourism’ provides more jobs, more sustainably, than mining and forestry together did in 2004. But it is often casual work. And in the 75 years since 1940 when extractive industries were in full swing, Westland’s population has grown from 19,000 to just 33,000.

Pearson’s insight, in his essay Fretful Sleepers, is an early shaft of light in a discussion that remains as unresolved today as then. The disconnection between the endlessly extolled natural beauties of Aotearoa and the complacency of so many of those who hold the franchise over them is stronger than ever. The mantra of developers and current politicians in both Australia and New Zealand who are irked by environmentalists – ‘we’ve got to get “balance” back into this’ – is to habitat loss and species extinction what parole is to a serial killer.

Pearson’s concerns for what he saw as the mass conformity of post-war New Zealand and his fears of a democratic breakdown in favour of a (military) strongman have not been realised. However, another kind of conformity and an even more pronounced detachment from ‘the land’ has emerged. Both allow the casual squandering of democratic and environmental capital. Hearing Prime Minister John Key and his Ministers raise the prospect of mining in national parks and more recently, forest parks, and of off-shore mineral licences and oil drilling with insufficient knowledge or regard to the depths being drilled – or emergency back-up even after the Rena disaster[3] – is disconcerting.  Letting the economy rip through the democratic arrangements of regional government to push irrigation in Canterbury and the interminably expanding dairy industry’s pollution of our lowlands nationally seems wilful and reckless.[4] And then there’s that shrugging, almost dismissive attitude to climate change.  There’s no comfort in knowing that on these issues and many others, particularly income inequality – the position shared by his neoliberal counterparts Harper and Abbott, respectively in Canada and Australia, holds the fearsome congruency of paper cut-out dolls.

This essay is a plea for taking responsibility. It asks in light of the 60 years since Pearson’s cri-de-coeur, what will it take to have New Zealand move towards a better integration of environmental, social and economic policy? How to effect what appears to be a growing emotional detachment from the land – and therefore any effective connection with it? And just what in the twenty-first century is the relationship between culture and nature at a time when democracy and equity are as often as not subverted to the needs of staying in government?

From the successful culmination of the Save [Lake] Manapouri campaign in 1972, many of us believed that we were building environmental protection and responsible, if not sustainable, development. This was further underpinned by the passage of the innovative Resource Management Act in 1991 and what has become a considerable body of freely available science and matauranga Maori.[5] With Maori gradually taking their rightful place in the public discourse, the nation’s two cultural streams would between them build an ethic in these islands that is both durable and internationally inspiring.

But over the past six years we have witnessed a growing disconnection between governance and environmental ethics. In the name of free markets, old capital – biophysical, democratic and social – continues to be squandered on the altar of GDP. It’s as if, despite all evidence to the contrary, there exists no substitute for business-as-usual. While the preceding, Labour government of Helen Clark began to address the twin imperatives of climate change and economic sustainability, it took nearly eight of their nine years in government to get there. Australian sustainability academic Bob Costanza’s challenge to governments to move swiftly to fully internalised accounting of biological as well as physical resources, seems a big ask. [6]

In New Zealand protection of Crown native forests has been largely, belatedly secured – but only so long as pest and weed control can be maintained.[7] Oceans policy generally and a sufficiency of representative marine reserves, however, remain an unanswered challenge. In this discussion I will focus on freshwater, partly because it is here that so much of the environment debate settles. Viewed more and more hungrily by dairy farmers who would have access to it as their birth right, our lowland freshwater was first defiled by pipe discharge of colonial town sewage. From the 1890s it was at the mercy of a cocktail, including tanning discharges and the raw offal of New Zealand’s then economic saviour, the freezing works. In the provincial town in which I grew up, the summer days when a sea breeze carried before it the effects of the opening of the blood gates from ‘the Imlay works’ the town’s air was fouled with the sweet, clinging odours of a charnel house. Huge rats ran riot and eels grew fat on lazy pickings. Near Wellington, at Gear Meat, Petone sharks flocked to the offal, blood and off-cuts released into Wellington Harbour. Such was the power of farming interests, efforts by local and central government to mitigate, largely on public health grounds, did not begin to make headway until the Waters Pollution Act was finally enacted in 1953.

Over the next 30 years the emerging environmental awareness of the 1960s and 70s and the brisk rationalisation of the freezing industry from the 1980s saw off the most egregious of these felonies. When my book Faces of the River, was published 30 years ago, the issue of river pollution from discharges was largely a receding one.[8]

However, by the early 1990s it was evident that the water commons was again under threat. Economies of scale made it difficult for small towns to clean up their sewage, but more significant was intensification of land use in the agricultural sector. Again this was on the lowlands, but this time the major culprit has been our national dairy herd, tripled in size over the past 30 years. Concentration of herds has seen more diffuse release of nitrogen as well as phosphorous. E.coli is also an issue. Coupled with excessive demand in many catchments, the mounting effects on freshwater values impact the Kiwi birthright to swim and fish locally. Pollution, reduced flows and resultant algal blooms now afflict some 60 per cent of our lowland rivers.[9] After years of prevarication, New Zealand’s dairying behemoth and a major export-earner, Fonterra, the prime driver for two decades of often over-leveraged, high-production dairy conglomerates, has for the past five years moved to encourage cleaner rivers. It is doing this in a variety of ways, mostly involving collaborative processes.

But intensification continues. Massey University freshwater ecologist, Dr Mike Joy, has been a persistent voice among those educating the public on rampant dairying and speaking truth to power on water. The complexities of rapid degradation of our rivers, lakes and ground water are deftly captured in his statement:

One of the most telling biodiversity figures is for freshwater species, revealing the extent of the damage done to waterways. Seventy-four per cent of the fifty-one native freshwater fish species are listed as threatened with extinction as well as New Zealand’s only mussel and freshwater crayfish. The number of threatened freshwater fish species has grown rapidly over the last few decades from around twenty per cent in the early nineties to the shocking seventy-four per cent now.

Joy’s criticism, sometimes quoted off-shore, has been loudly accused by one right-wing lobbyist as ‘treasonous’. The irony of an advocate for self-interest setting himself up as a judge of long-term, public-mindedness bordering on patriotism is extraordinary.  I will return to this theme.

Waterways defender, Dr Mike Joy in field work, Mangaone River, Manawatu district, North Island. (Photo: Aliscia Young.)

One possibility for breaking a quarter of a century of pussy-footing around water regulation arises. National’s current Minister for the Environment, Nick Smith, who has previously held both this portfolio, and Conservation, can now advance his earlier endeavours. Under questioning, he is known to intone: ‘I am a blue-green’. That is, ‘I am of this government, and I am also green’. His loyalty to these two often strenuously competing forces will be put to the test. In this new term of office he needs to enshrine strong, protective measures in a national policy statement for our lowland waterways, so long sought by environmental, local and iwi (tribal) groups. This should provide certainty for regulators, business and the environment.

For inspiration and guidance he has before him the fruits of an unprecedented exercise in collaboration. Collaboration is not natural to modern New Zealand culture, although cooperation was a factor in our earlier agricultural history. The Land and Water Forum, partially funded by government, sought to have farmers, business groups, iwi, environmentalists, local and national government find agreement on water management. It completed its final report in 2012. However, to date, the government has chosen to pick from an integrated list of recommendations only what suits its own purposes for its proposed freshwater reforms.


During the 30 years since deregulation began, hearings and settlements of tribal grievances against the Crown under the Treaty of Waitangi have also continued apace under both Labour and National. The result has been growing economic coupled with political empowerment, enabling Maori corporations and voices to take a fuller role in democracy. Ngai Tahu, for example, has for some years now been the pre-eminent economic entity in the South Island. While their brand of corporate capitalism embodies as many problems as it might answers to environmental issues, iwi-Maori generally continue to provide environmental ballast to a ship of state flying the Adam Smith flag of convenience .

Maori do still speak for the land – eloquently and with a deep knowledge and spiritual connection that can be challenging for Pakeha traditions to match. One meeting point for bi-culturalism, and for nature and culture generally, is the work of repair and restoration of native biodiversity. Matched by similar activities across the Tasman, this is one of the most important movements to arise in this country since the ‘economic rationalism’ of the 1980s. Its volunteers are dedicated to the regeneration of native flora and fauna as well as ensuring, for example clean streams.

Restoration in Nelson, South Island: Mapua School in Tane’s Ark planting project extending the covenanted Mapua wetland. (Photo: David Mitchell.)
Restoration in Nelson, South Island: Mapua School in Tane’s Ark planting project extending the covenanted Mapua wetland. (Photo: David Mitchell.)


Ten years ago, a damp paddock.
Ten years ago, a damp paddock.

While hard statistics here are slippery, we do know that since this work took off on small off-shore islands, thousands of regular volunteers have become involved on the mainland. Varying in scope and intensity, the work has many forms: from dune land planting and restoration to wetland reconstruction and forest protection. It takes in about 45 mainland islands and sanctuaries (areas ranging in size surrounded by predator-proof fences or trapping operations that may be urban-domestic or part of a reserve or National Park). For example, volunteers of the Friends of Flora, Nelson have staked out about 120 kilometres of Kahurangi National Park, ringing the area with some 1200 steel traps. This has enabled the restoration of the threatened, territorial blue duck (whio) and great spotted kiwi. Rats, possums, stoats and weasels are targeted. Since 2001 the Friends have been doing this hard yakka that the Department of Conservation lacks both finance and capacity to carry out itself.

But other constituencies, seemingly growing in number, hold values and aspirations more closely fitted to the short-term thinking inherent in New Zealand’s three year electoral cycles.


Cloud nine on the Manawatu. (Photo: Alisicia Young.)
Cloud nine on the Manawatu. (Photo: Alisicia Young.)

On a mid-summer’s evening in 2013, taking photographs along the Manawatu River, my daughter and I were drawn to two families casting below the bridge at State Highway One. As we came closer, both their language and activity suggested they were recent migrants. By most measures, the Manawatu is New Zealand’s most polluted river, receiving sewage and dairying run-off and sometimes its direct discharges and other waste.[10]

Heaped, dumped litter under the bridge was grotesque. This was a moment to ponder: did they not know about the water’s quality? Here they were, seemingly on cloud nine, fishing the Manawatu. And why not, I wondered? Why, would they give a moment’s thought to the national government’s relentless plans to rip the heart out of our Resource Management Act?

Last year, a record net 48,000 migrants arrived; like the rest of us, some will be environmentally aware and committed. But many will bring attitudes that add to the lump sum of Kiwi complacency when it comes to upholding the special values of this archipelago. It takes time to know a land, longer to fully love it. We humans are slow learners and slow to adapt to new places. It was this concern that gave rise to the late Bishop Wharehui Vercoe’s vehement protests from the early 1990s. He saw the immigration up-swing from Asia as undermining Treaty status and as ‘instrumental in the marginalisation of Maori in their own country’.[11]  The disempowerment that so many of my generation, and those younger, feel under this government is not dissimilar.

Immigration policy in the current de-regulated zeitgiest has the potential to tip collective values even more towards exploitation and lack of respect for the land. But it need not be like this. In the end it is not immigration itself that is the problem, but multiple trust issues arising from ‘shoot from the hip’ and ‘let her rip’ policy formation of government. This is underpinned by a nineteenth-century distaste for regulation, especially in the environment, combined with a preference for fait accompli decisions, rather than public debate. It is a time of deep crisis in values of governance.

The integration of nature and culture, which Maori wisdom still invites us all to commit to, becomes even more imperative. In philosopher John Patterson’s idea that mana (the potential for authority, power and respect and a central element of Maori culture) lies something that might be conferred upon those who do outstanding environmental work.  In this we have the beginnings of a bi-cultural patriotism and a pathway to engagement.[12]

All this requires, however, far more forward-looking leadership, taking account of the long-view, good science and matauranga Maori. It would be a hard call for Nick Smith, but he knows in his heart that short-term, expedient government will not serve the most profound values of this land. One such value I would suggest might be the promotion of patriotism as landcare in its widest sense, while acts that destroy, defile or diminish the environment come to be regarded as unpatriotic, if not ‘treasonous’. Corporate lobbyists, beware!

Of course, 2015 is the centennial year of the Gallipolli debacle, to which observance both ANZAC governments are devoting much funding and energy. However, I am at one with former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating when he says that he has no truck with the populist view that in this disaster lay the forging of Australia’s [or New Zealand’s] identity as a nation.[13] I am not persuaded that the monumental suffering, loss of life and disruption that the First World War delivered aided us in our understanding of ourselves as a nation. Anything but.

Since the 1890s many parts of New Zealand had observed the American Arbor Day, wherever possible with the Governor-General’s involvement. [14] Post First World War, the ancestors of restoration found ‘a healing balm’ in the forests and mountains.[15] After the Second World War, ex-soldiers discovered an outlet by constructing huts in the Canterbury alps.[16]

Ecological restoration as an expression of patriotism is not explicit in the modern movement today. But when combined with Patterson’s idea of environmental mana, we have an ethic for psychological integration of culture and nature that is multi-cultural.  Those who died in the world wars did not necessarily do so in order to protect our native biodiversity. But they did make it possible for us to defend it. Interestingly, much of German remembrance of war entails application of ‘how a century’s hard-won wisdom can be applied to present day problems.’[17] If a fraction of the effort going in to the notion of being a patriot around notions of war were devoted to bringing Maori, new migrants and Pakeha together in the defence of our biological services from the depredations of careless individuals and heavily defended corporations, we would have a far better  place to hand on to our great grandkids. But the restoration movement will need to become that much more politically – as well as physically – engaged.


[1] Bill Pearson, ‘Fretful Sleepers’, Landfall, 6, no 3, 1952

[2] These make up 25 per cent of the public lands managed by the Department of Conservation Te Ara, Simon Nathan. ‘West Coast region – Tourism and outdoor recreation’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand

[3] The Rena ran aground on Astrolabe Reef, off the Bay of Plenty coast in 2011 creating a 5km oil slick, discharging a cargo of containers and polluting the beaches in the Bay. Recent legislation may be more effective.

[4] David Young, Rivers: New Zealand’s shared legacy, Random House, Auckland, 2013. See introduction and ch 2

[5] The ever-evolving knowledge of Maori ion relation to the natural world that sustains them. Ko au te awa, ko te awa ko au’ (I am the river and the river is me)

[6] Bob Costanza,  ‘Challenges and Opportunities for engaging the business community around Natural Capital: Putting Natural Capital on the Books’, Rivers Symposium, Canberra, September 2014

[7] Gerry McSweeney, Sanderson Memorial Address, ‘Back to Basics: Saving the Natural Heritage of New Zealand, 29 June 2014

[8] David Young, ‘Faces of the River’, NZ Listener, Wellington, 1986

[9] Mike Joy, ‘Paradise Squandered: New Zealand’s Environmental Asset Stripping’,  The 2014 Bruce Jesson Memorial Lecture , p.17

[10] Roger Young,Cawthron Institute

[11]  Charles Faerall, Paul Millar, Keren Smith, East by South: China in the Australasian Imagination, Victoria Unvesity, Wellington 2005, p.88

[12] John Patterson, People of the land: a Pacific philosophy, Dunmore Press, Palmerston North, 2000

[14] David Young, Our Islands, Our Selves: a history of conservation in New Zealand, Otago University Press, Dunedin, 2003, pp 95-6.97, 129, 210, 235

[15] Shaun Barnett, Chris Mclean, Tramping: a New Zealand history, Craig Potton Publishing, 2014, p.111

[16] Neill Atkinson, ‘Commemorative History’, Phanzine, vol 20, no 3, Dec 2016 p 5

David Young

A journalist for twenty years, David Young has continued a fascination with water, conservation and Treaty of Waitangi issues for twenty-five years as a freelance writer exploring the relationship between culture and nature in nine books – one a novel – many articles, oral history and television work.

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