Threatened Birthright: If our children are to enjoy the rights their parents enjoyed in New Zealand's rivers and streams we must open our eyes to the damage already done and the damage threatened by the commercial exploitation of this country's waterways.\
IT MIGHT HAVE BEEN YESTERDAY, so vivid is the memory. The river was called the Waianakarua. Fresh and clean it tumbled out of the Kakanui Mountains, flowing powerfully through the narrow defile which the district’s Scottish settlers called Glencoe. As it curled and twisted around the great boulders that clogged and blocked the valley, the river collected itself into deep pools. It was into one of these that I leaped as a boy and for the first time in my life opened my eyes underwater. So pure and clean were the waters of the Waianakarua that I could see every pebble. The wonder of it has never left me.
Until a few years ago it never occurred to me that the magic of such moments was anything other than the birthright of all New Zealanders. These islands were so large and we Kiwis so few that the possibility that New Zealand’s rivers and streams could ever be anything other than pure and clean seemed fanciful. The marketing expert who came up with “100% Pure New Zealand” clearly felt the same.
Humanity’s response to the idea that somewhere, far away at the bottom of the world, there is a place where rivers and streams still tumble pure and clean out of snow-capped mountains has been dramatic. The tourist dollar is now a crucial contributor to New Zealand’s economic well-being. The purity and cleanliness of our waterways now possess much, much more than mere aesthetic value.
Indeed, the world’s impression of New Zealand as “clean and green” offers us a perceptual springboard from which we could construct a new and very exciting “green” economy. The world hungers for reassurance that the havoc human-beings have wrought upon the natural environment can be repaired and that it is possible to tread so lightly upon the planet that the wonders they experienced as children will still be there for their grandchildren.
The exports from such a green economy would command a huge premium in world markets. The sheer prestige value of products bearing the Made in New Zealand “brand” (think “Swiss watches”, “French wines”) could make this one of the richest countries on Earth.
None of this is new. Since the late-1950s, when Bill Sutch offered the Second Labour Government his vision of a richly diverse, highly-skilled, value-added and self-sustaining New Zealand economy, it has been obvious to all patriotic Kiwis what needs to be done.
That it hasn’t been done is attributable almost entirely to that wealthy minority of New Zealanders who control our primary production sector, and around whom have gathered a parasitic coterie of importers, retailers and real-estate speculators. These people have always set our nation’s course. The original colonisers. Harvesters of forests. Diggers of mines. Farmers of sheep and cattle. Rip-in, rip-out and rip-off has always been their creed and New Zealand is merely the last in a long line of ravaged and ruined lands they have fallen upon. They remain among us only because there is still some ruin to work here. When the pillaging is complete they will move on.
We have reached the point, however, where the nitrate and phosphate pollution these pillaging cockies are pumping into their farmland is overwhelming the environment’s capacity to neutralise it. Milk powder, the latest example of their extractive mania, has given rise to dairy herds whose weight upon the land is now so great that our rivers and streams are rapidly becoming toxic ditches in which no responsible parent would allow a little boy to swim.
If you doubt this, just consider the new management policy the polluters’ political representatives have set for our waterways. The quality of the water must be such that merely by wading in it New Zealanders can be confident of avoiding illness. But rivers and streams that they can swim in? No, no! That’s too much to expect. Too much to ask for.
It is time all New Zealanders opened their eyes. But, please, not underwater!
This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 18 July 2014.