Before and Beyond Rio: Environmental Colonisation and Destruction


This week was the release of the report by the World Wildlife fund, ‘Beyond Rio’. The report has been written by WWF as an assessment of the state of the environmental nation in this country since the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. It highlights the performances of successive governments in Aotearoa for the past twenty years against the agreements made in Rio as a part of the global agenda for action to deal directly with environmental issues.  The report card is a clear ‘fail’ across the board.

The New Zealand Herald quotes Waikato academic David Hamilton as stating;

“Almost every environmental performance indicator points to deterioration in the New Zealand environment, particularly the biodiversity across fresh water, marine and terrestrial systems”.

The report notes that NZ governments agreed to a number of key commitments as a part of the 1992 Rio and 2002 Johannesburg summits. Those included:

•        Stem the loss of New Zealand’s marine and terrestrial biodiversity

•        Reduce New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions

•        Fully incorporate sustainability into education for New Zealanders

•        Ensure our fisheries do not exceed ecological limits

•        Ensure our use of freshwater does not exceed ecological limits

The report identifies that in some areas there has been a range of plans, strategies, policies and initiatives but on the whole those have not delivered significant change.  Instead there has been:

  1. An increase in greenhouse gas emissions.
  2. A decline in key species both in marine and land environments.
  3. A worsening trend in freshwater pollution.
  4. A lack of information leading to ongoing uncertainty over the state of biodiversity and/or the ecological limits we face.
  5. A lack of sustainability education, with a particular note of the fact that “the progress made between 2004 and 2008 has since been reversed”.

Clearly successive governments have failed to fulfill fundamental obligations to this whenua and to current and future generations.  Whilst the findings of the ‘Beyond Rio’ report are deeply concerning it is, sadly, not surprising given that the colonial destruction of our lands has been something our people have struggle with for the past 200 years.

 Whatungarongaro te tangata, toi tu te whenua.

 We have many whakatauki that provide us with teachings and learnings about our relationship to the environment.  Whatungarongaro te tangata, Toitu te whenua is one that has been increasingly in my thoughts and reflections. The people perish, but the land remains.  It is a reminder of our obligations as people to care for, to protect, to support, to enhance, the whenua and all living things that are a part of the many domains of this land.  As Indigenous Peoples we have a clear understanding that our existence on this land is dependent upon our relationship with all living things.  This report highlights that the actions of dominance and the drive for capitalist gain for the minority continues to destroy those relationships.  We have been told clearly for many generations that this is a time that we must transform our ways of being or risk our own existence.  It has been prophesized by many Indigenous Nations across the earth.  It is now spoken of by even the most mainstream of scientists.

Human beings are destroying this great Earth Mother.  This whakatauki, alongside others, remind us that where people may perish the land will remain to rejuvernate itself without our presence. The reality is that Papatuanuku does not require our presence to sustain herself, in fact she would be better off without us.  And maybe that’s what is truly required. The removal of those destructive two legged upright walking ones, yes those human beings who continue to place economics and greed before the wellbeing of Papatuanuku, of our Earth Mother, may be the only way out if we are to see this Earth survive for future generations.  We should all be angry at this. We should all struggle against this. We should all call  to task governments and corporates that fail to provide the most fundamental care for our environment as a priority.

And we should all support those that do. Those people that take the risks. That walk the talk. That put their selves on the line for the wellbeing of all, locally, nationally and globally.

The destruction of our whenua has not just been happening over the past 20 years. The destruction of our whenua, the pollution of our awa, our moana has been happening since colonial occupation brought with it the ideology of our environment as a commodity.  The rape of the land has been our experience for over 200 years.  The idea that the land should be ‘tamed’ is often celebrated in colonial regional anniversaries.  That early colonisers overcame and controlled the ‘harsh environment’.  The clearing of millions of acres of Native forests to establish Aotearoa as a farming country.  The importation of animals not of this land both as pests and as products for sale.  All of these things are a part of the history of colonization of this land.

We continue to fight the battle for the wellbeing of our whenua. Whānau, hapū and iwi across the country have examples of long-term struggles for the wellbeing of the environment in their territories.  In October 2011 a range of Taranaki iwi, and supporters from Waitara, took yet another case to the environmental court to put an end to the use of the Waitara Marine Outfall.  It has been 30 years since the Wai 6 claim led by Aila Taylor for Te Atiawa iwi was heard by the Waitangi Tribunal. It has been 30 years of struggle against the pollution of our rivers and coastline.

One hapū member in 1981 stated to the Waitangi Tribunal:

“If the Motunui outfall is built parts of our reefs will be destroyed by the blasting and because of the poisons will be tapu also . . . We cannot and will never accept another sea outfall on our coast. I stress these are the last remaining reefs belonging to our hapu.”

The Tribunal provided a range of remedies including the Crown not building the proposed ocean outfall, the interim use only of the Waitara river outlet, and the future development of land based treatments.

The New Plymouth Regional Council applied for an extension for another 35 years of the use of the Waitara outfall, and argued that a full land-based system was not economically viable and used some reductionist science to try to prove their case. Sadly the Environment Tribunal granted the extension. It seems tribunal was more about providing validity for that ongoing destruction of our lands rather than for its protection.

The point being that the ‘Beyond Rio’ report highlights something that we as Tangata Whenua have lived with and known for 200 years.  Our people have been fighting colonial control over our lands since the very beginning of colonisation where our lands were divided and illegally sold to the settler population.  We have removed survey pegs, we have ploughed the land, we have fought against the individualisation and commodification of our whenua.

For generations whānau, hapū, iwi and Māori organisations have been to tribunals and courts to protect this country against land thefts, environmental destruction, genetic manipulation, biocolonialism and privatisation.  Rarely have our struggles for the wellbeing of Aotearoa been affirmed and vindicated and where even in this report those struggles remain invisible, we know that what we are struggling for is exactly that which our tupuna sought, it is at its essence about our fundamental survival on our own land.

Dr Leonie Pihama (Te Ātiawa, Ngāti Māhanga, Ngā Māhanga a Tairi)

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