Rethinking Landscape in Aotearoa

I recently had the privilege of attending the annual conference of the Environmental Defence Society (EDS) of New Zealand in Auckland (14-15 August 2019). This is the major conference in NZ on environmental policy and management. Each year there is a focus on a different theme. More information on the role EDS and the conferences can be obtained found here.

The key premise for this year’s conference, subtitled “Through New Eyes”, was that New Zealand’s (Aotearoa) land and seascapes are an integral component of the nation’s well-being and identity. They are seen to provide places with deep cultural connections, especially through Maori, that are havens for biodiversity, and of great beauty and scientific significance. However, many of these places continue to be degraded and the system of managing places has been found wanting. A case study of the Mackenzie Basin on the South Island was used to examine how degradation had occurred and what new thinking could be applied to yield more effective management approaches and tools.

EDS each year manages to attract a cross-section of decision-makers in the area of natural resource management to its annual conference. This includes Government Ministers, opposition Shadow Ministers, senior agency officials and policy makers, environmental lawyers, NGO and Maori representatives, some academics and government scientists, and those in the private sector with interest in land management. There were also three international speakers of which I was one (thus subject to questions about our environmental policies!). It was impressive to see how many Kiwis spoke in Maori, reflecting a huge level of respect and engagement with cultural and spiritual connections of Maori people and tribal groups (Iwi) to the land (Mana Whenua) of Aotearoa.

Like many countries settled by colonists from Europe in the last 200 years or so, there are conflicting interests in the way places are used. New Zealand is no exception. But the Treaty of Waitangi offers a basis for engagement with indigenous peoples not apparent in Australia. The nature of engagement is evolving and much time at this conference was spent on issues and possible ways forward. In some cases the clash between what was termed mainstream science and Maori values was noted. However, this was not the case in the debate over the proposed one billion trees planting program where agreement on the need to replace exotic pines with indigenous species was acceptable to many at the conference.

A common issue for those involved in landscape/seascape management was governance. The other two overseas speakers spent time on models for effective governance involving multiple stakeholders. It was a theme I picked up on especially when referring to coastal reforms in NSW and the role of the new NSW Coastal Council. A key concern was what was termed “alignment of agencies” or the consequences of lack of alignment. The Mackenzie Basin was the case study; by the end of the two days I felt I knew it well enough not to bother to visit although it looks a beautiful place. It was examined from the perspective of water allocation and use, tourist pressure, pest and climate change impacts, Maori cultural values and agency collaboration. This required participants to learn and think about different models of governance. Immediately I was struck with relevance to state coastal and marine management in Australia, and so being in Aotearoa at this time was extremely insightful. Many thanks to EDS for the invitation.

Bruce Thom 

Words by Prof Bruce Thom. Please respect the author's thoughts and reference appropriately: (c) ACS, 2019, for correspondence about this blog post please email