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Trauma, dislocation, pollution: why Māori leaders want control of the South Island’s water | New Zealand

On the eve of their tribe’s settlement with the crown, Gabrielle Huria and Te Maire Tau walked out on to the cracked, dry earth of Tūtaepatu lagoon’s mattress.

The lagoon’s edges, as soon as thick with flax, had been choked by imported weed, spiralling blackberry and English willow. The streams that fed it had been giving up their waters to irrigate the surrounding dairy farms and having them returned in a swill of effluent. Lastly, they’d run dry. On the far shoreline was the place the place the tribe used to surrender their useless to the mud, decreasing them into its darkish, hidden reaches alongside the waterline. Now the mud had baked to concrete, cracked and cratered like a desert. On its floor, 1000’s of tuna, the native eels so valued by the tribe, lay useless or dying in the solar, their scent mingling with that of the drying silt. Above them, birds had been circling – so giant that Tau thought for a second he was seeing eagles. However they had been solely hawks, fats from a lot carrion.

Te Maire Tau, historian and associate professor at University of Canterbury.
Te Maire Tau, an affiliate professor at the College of Canterbury, helps lead the combat for Māori authority over the South Island’s waterways. {Photograph}: Naomi Haussmann

“We questioned if it was a tohu” – an omen or signal, Huria says, looking at the lagoon greater than 20 years later. “However Te Maire stated it simply signified a change – issues had been completely different.” The lagoon could be returned to them that yr in the tribe’s 1998 treaty settlement, and in the a long time since, volunteers have steadily remodeled it: pulling out the launched weeds and vines, replanting with harakeke flax and fern, nursing again plant species to assist filter the waterways that feed it.

Huria and Tau are two distinguished leaders inside Ngāi Tahu, New Zealand’s largest southern tribe, they usually now have their sights on a bigger battle: authority over the South Island’s water. The tribe is taking New Zealand’s authorities to court docket, for what they allege have been repeated failures over successive governments to guard the nation’s waterways. They argue that the crown should recognise their rangatiratanga – governing authority and self-determination – over waterways stretching throughout most of the South Island.

An outcropping of the Ashley River, or Rakahuri.
An outcropping of the Ashley River, or Rakahuri. Ninety-five per cent of rivers flowing via pastoral land in New Zealand are polluted. {Photograph}: Naomi Haussmann

The authorized case is unprecedented and dances throughout political, cultural and financial battles taking part in out throughout the nation: New Zealand’s financial reliance on dairy, and a colonial legacy inserting farming at the coronary heart of its tradition, is more and more pitted towards its clear inexperienced picture, local weather commitments and rising actions for Māori sovereignty over their pure sources. These currents compete in the argument over South Island rivers, which circulation via some of the nation’s most fragile pure landscapes and its most affluent farming nation.

‘One thing damaged and dying’

Te Maire Tau strikes alongside the banks of the Ashley/Rakahuri River at a gentle lope then pauses to carry up a hand. “That is good wind for eeling,” he says. The chilly easterly sweeping down off the alps will dry a dangling eel fillet rapidly. To his proper the water flows, sluggish brown, its backside thick with mud, algae carpeting the shingle. A blue heron strikes slowly via the sludge then its beak spears down, the silver slip of a minnow catching the gentle. “ what I really feel sorry for? These poor birds, consuming out of this bloody filth,” Tau says.

“Properly,” says Huria, following him in a inexperienced raincoat. “We eat out of it.”

Many of the waters that circulation via Ngāi Tahu lands have been contaminated. The fish and eels that the tribe has hunted for generations are threatened. The puha watercress they pull from the creekbeds reeks of effluent. The rivers bloom green and black with toxic algae, so toxic {that a} clump the dimension of a coin can kill a dog in 30 minutes.

Their state displays a a lot wider, long-brewing disaster with New Zealand’s recent waterways. About 60% are unswimmable, 74% of freshwater fish are threatened or at risk of extinction and 95% of rivers flowing through pastoral land are contaminated. College of Otago analysis this yr discovered 800,000 New Zealanders were drinking water with unsafe levels of nitrate contamination. In 2016, greater than 5,000 folks fell ailing after a city’s waterways had been contaminated with E coli.

In 2017, then prime ministerial candidate Jacinda Ardern made cleansing up the nation’s waterways a marketing campaign promise. “Clear water is the birthright of all of us. I want future generations to have the ability to swim in the native river, similar to I did,” she stated. Since then, nevertheless, progress has been sluggish or nonexistent. The federal government launched stricter rules final yr, however they’re anticipated to take 5 years to enhance water high quality.

Te Maire Tau, historian and associate professor at University of Canterbury.
Te Maire Tau breaks open an aruhe, or edible fern root. He says the gathering of meals is intrinsic to the id of the tribe. {Photograph}: Naomi Haussmann

The degradation of these waterways represents excess of the loss of a meals supply or leisure playground, Tau says. Rivers are woven deep into the cloth of Māori id. A pepeha, the conventional type for greeting, begins by stating these foundational connections: that is my identify, my tribe, my river, my mountain.

“Basically to us, there isn’t any different id. That is who we’re,” Tau says.

“All our outdated folks, they weep about it,” says Huria, chief government of Te Kura Taka Pini, the tribe’s freshwater group. “After they get collectively and speak, they begin weeping about what the river was to them and what it’s now.

“Non secular id is tied up in it, their sense of place and our sense of place. For me what breaks my coronary heart is our youngsters received’t be capable of do any of it [fishing, swimming or gathering traditional foods] as a result of it’s too soiled. As a mother or father your complete objective is to move on to your youngsters the messages of your technology, and what will we move on to them? One thing damaged and dying.”

A wealthy and considerable meals basket

The takiwā (tribal territory) of Ngāi Tahu covers virtually all of the South Island. Mendacity at its centre are the Canterbury plains, New Zealand’s largest space of flat land, shaped over 1000’s of years as gravel and sediment washed down from the mountains of the Southern Alps. The particles shaped a land of porous layers – soil, shingle, gravel, silt. An often-hidden community of water seeps endlessly via it through braided rivers and ribboning creeks, flood plains, wetlands, subterranean aquifers. For Ngāi Tahu, the plains had been a jewel – a wealthy and considerable meals basket, stuffed with eels, fish, fowl life, cress and root greens.

An outcropping of the Ashley River, or Rakahuri.
Some rivers are polluted with algae so poisonous a coin-sized piece can kill a canine in half-hour. {Photograph}: Naomi Haussmann

Right this moment the plains are nonetheless a supplier of meals and prosperity: they type the coronary heart of New Zealand’s profitable multibillion-dollar dairy trade, which accounts for 3% of the nation’s GDP and 20% of complete exports. Over the previous 30 years, Canterbury dairy cattle have elevated 973% – from 113,000 to sit at 1.2-1.3 million in the final 5 years. Amongst them are Ngāi Tahu’s personal cattle – the tribe’s enterprise arm has a considerable farming funding. To remodel the dry, wind-whipped plains into the lush grass expanses dairy cattle have to graze, farmers started pumping up huge portions of water and pouring it out over the land, together with nitrogen-rich fertiliser. The area has turn into the most irrigated in the nation.

“The issue is just not a lot the irrigation, it’s what it permits,” says Dr Mike Pleasure, a freshwater ecologist at Victoria College. “It permits the intensification. It goes from just a few scraggly sheep to 1000’s – truly 1.3 million – cows.” Courtesy of these cows, many of Canterbury’s fields are doused in nitrates twice, Pleasure says – fertiliser to develop the grass after which once more with their effluent. In excessive concentrations, nitrogen turns into poisonous: linked to most cancers and blue child syndrome in people, and inflicting the algal blooms that suffocate life in the rivers.

Most proposed options, Pleasure says, are nowhere close to radical sufficient – specializing in mitigation methods when New Zealand must radically diminish the pollution it places into waterways. “You probably have a pot of milk on the range and it’s boiling over, the answer that appears to be the common one is to get a tea towel – after which perhaps purchase some extra tea towels,” Pleasure says. “The one manner you repair that is to show the fuel off. You’ll be able to’t repair one thing whilst you’re nonetheless polluting it.”

Ripples of outrage

Te Maire Tau, historian and associate professor at University of Canturbury, scholar of Ngāi Tahu oral histories and one of the leaders of the tribe’s legal battle for control of the South Island’s water.
Te Maire Tau says rivers are woven deep into the cloth of Māori id. {Photograph}: Naomi Haussmann
Tūtaepatu lagoon.
Volunteers have labored to revive Tūtaepatu lagoon over the previous 20 years, replanting it with native species. {Photograph}: Naomi Haussmann

Ngāi Tahu’s court docket case, they are saying, is a step in direction of a extra radical strategy. “For too lengthy, governments have talked about addressing these points however have made piecemeal progress,” Ngāi Tahu chair Lisa Tumahai stated as the court docket case was filed. “That’s not sufficient. Now could be the time to behave.” The argument is a component of a wider raft of circumstances over water from iwi (tribes), and their declare follows a precedent-setting 2017 case, by which the Whanganui River was granted authorized personhood.

Rangatiratanga, the tribe says, is just not the identical as possession – it signifies governing authority and rights but additionally duty for cover. The workplace of David Parker, the setting minister and legal professional normal, didn’t return a request for remark – the authorities doesn’t sometimes touch upon ongoing litigation.

However any attainable shift in the steadiness of control of the water that feeds the nation’s greatest export could cause ripples of discomfort or outrage. As the authorities floated a set of reforms in direction of co-governance with iwi over water, opposition chief Judith Collins claimed the tribes would “personal” the water – and took to social media to stir controversy. “What’s your view – ought to your native council should pay iwi for consuming water? Who owns water?” she requested supporters on-line. “Nobody ought to should pay iwi something, for something,” got here one reply. “They’re tearing our nation aside,” stated one other, whereas others decried it as “separatism” and “racism”.

Collins subsequently accepted she had mischaracterised the tribe’s proposal, and that Ngāi Tahu has not proposed possession of water. However her rhetoric set a tone that might proceed over the coming months, and in 2021 “separatism” grew to become an more and more distinguished thread in the centre-right of New Zealand politics.

Chris Allen, spokesperson on water high quality for the foyer group Federated Farmers, says with hindsight there’s “loads” of dairy conversions that wouldn’t have been carried out. “However there’s a free market and a few determined to maybe be taught the arduous manner. We didn’t have guidelines or limits … We now do.”

Farming alone was not liable for water degradation in New Zealand, Allen stated, including some of the nation’s most polluted rivers ran via cities. He stated farmers had been conscious of the issues and targeted on options. Some Canterbury farmers must dramatically scale back their nitrogen loss – some by as much as 30% – or face penalties.

“We’re on a journey. And that journey has been occurring for Canterbury for nicely over 10 years.

“We’ve bought to get the steadiness proper,” he says. “That’s actually arduous. If it was straightforward, it could have been finished a very long time in the past.”

For Māori, Tau argues, the degradation of the waterways and the loss of wholesome rivers and streams is one other type of confiscation, layered atop the historic expropriation of land and waterways.

“The one traumatic occasion that featured in the lives of the grandparents and oldsters was dislocation from the land,” he says.

As the rivers die, he sees the ensuing alienation from the pure panorama and waters as the same course of, repeating. “The identical has occurred with tradition and id in the panorama: you turn into an increasing number of dislocated.”

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