Humankind’s relationship with nature has always been tricky, as has the association between colonizer and conquered. But time and effort does wonders to heal damaging rifts. At least, that’s the guiding force behind endeavors by New Zealand’s government to clean up the polluted Waikato River. Nearly three years after passage of the Waikato River Settlement Act, government and Maori leaders are working together to overcome 150 years of industrial pollution and the lingering vestiges of political turmoil. To anyone unfamiliar with New Zealand, it may come as a surprise that the first sentence of the bill’s preamble is written in the Maori language.
New Zealand has a small population for a developed country — 4.3 million as of 2010 — but according to its national statistics office, there are more than 41 million agricultural animals living on the country’s 270,000 square kilometers. That’s 120 sheep, 27 cows, four deer, and 1.2 pigs per square kilometer. Of course, they’re not evenly spread out, but concentrated in certain areas around the country. One such zone where intensive livestock farming has been a major source of water quality degradation is along the Waikato River.
From Lake Taupo — a massive body of freshwater nestled at the base of a mountain range, 356 meters above sea level — the river meanders 425 kilometers across the North Island on its way to the Tasman Sea. Along its route, the water’s flow is interrupted by eight dams feeding nine hydroelectric power stations. Fertilizer and animal waste has caused high nitrate levels in the water, and arsenic from the Wairakei Geothermal Power Station has put levels of the toxin at three-and-a-half times the World Health Organization’s guideline value. The river’s flow quickly dilutes nitrates, but continuous pollution over the years has led to a decline in native fish populations — most notably the New Zealand grayling, which is now extinct.
Pollution mitigation has been on the New Zealand government’s radar for decades now, but there is still a long way to go. The landmark Resource Management Act of 1991 did more to address the resources themselves that it did to tackle social issues behind resource problems, but the 2008 bill — the full name of which is the Waikato-Tainui Raupatu Claims Settlement Bill — reaches much farther back in history to the problem’s human-caused source.
Raupatu is the Maori word for the mid-19th century New Zealand land wars, a series of armed conflicts that resulted in the tribesmen losing 486,000 hectares of riparian land to British settlers by the 1860s. Land ownership disputes arose not long after Maori elders signed a treaty with the English crown in 1840. Promised ownership of the land, forests and fisheries surrounding the Waikato River, settlers began staking claims anyway, leading to outbreaks of violence between government troops and a militant faction of Maori from 1845 to 1872. Land confiscations followed. The New Zealand Ministry for Culture and Heritage estimates that the Maori lost nearly 9 million hectares between 1860 and 2000.
Although New Zealand’s government hasn’t seen fit to boot the farmers now working in the Waikato watershed, it has restored the Maori’s historic claim to the land in terms less congruous with Western notions of land ownership than most Australians, Americans, and Europeans are used to. Maori assert communal spiritual ownership of the Waikato River and its watershed, regarding it as a source of power and pride, and they have been granted such a claim accordingly. Although the new legal expression of ownership hasn’t extended to certain land blocks and harbors, the Maori’s reconnection seems to have bolstered conservation efforts. Under scrutiny are plans to employ groundwater contamination monitoring to aid water quality improvements, and the government is beginning to address invasive plant species choking river banks that haven’t seen rushing water in many a decade because of the presence of dams.
In all, it’s a balancing act. Agriculture supports the economy, but the Maori river ethic can help policymakers formulate a more effective contaminant removal strategy. The Waikato’s dams and geothermal electric facility aren’t going anywhere either. The New Zealand Ministry of Economic Development reported that as of 2008, 16 percent of the country’s power came from power production in the Waikato watershed. But better effluent filtration, improved livestock fencing, more accurate contamination monitoring, and a number of other measures are being employed to address pollution issues under the supervision of a government-backed regional council for the Waikato region.
As New Zealand’s fourth largest region population-wise — 20 percent of the region’s inhabitants are Maori — Maori values-inspired progress in the Waikato region could possibly influence projects in other more populated area’s of the country. For, as the Settlement Bill’s preamble notes: “…the Waikato River is a tupuna (ancestor) which has mana (prestige) and in turn represents the mana and mauri (life force) of the tribe. Respect for the mana o te awa (the spiritual authority, protective power and prestige of the Waikato River) is at the heart of the relationship between the tribe and their ancestral river.”