Our agricultural, horticultural, and forestry industries, which all make a major contribution to our economy and support our way of life, depend largely on land. Our land environment also provides the habitat for many of our indigenous plants and animals – many of which exist nowhere else on Earth. Land provides food and materials, such as timber, and supports ecosystem services, such as the filtering of water.
For Māori, the whenua (land) is a source of identity, food, and other resources that have sustained people for hundreds of years. In Māori mythology, the whenua is Papatūānuku, the Earth Mother. All gods – and ultimately people, are descended from her and Ranginui, the Sky Father. The landscape therefore represents ancestors from whom people are descended. Land is also the site of wāhi tapu (sacred sites) and wāhi taonga (historical sites and other places of significance to Māori), such as urupā (cemeteries), battlegrounds, and locations for gathering precious resources.
Land supports our economic well-being
Agriculture, forestry, and horticulture made an important contribution to our economy. In 2014, dairy and meat exports alone accounted for 41 percent of the total value of merchandise exports. The relative contribution of the dairy sector to our gross domestic product (GDP) has been increasing, overtaking sheep, beef, and grain farming combined.
For more detail see Environmental indicators Te taiao Aotearoa: Economic performance of the agricultural industry.
Tourism also makes an important contribution to our economy – our national parks and open spaces are a major attraction for overseas visitors (Statistics NZ, 2014). In 2012, mining contributed 1.9 percent to GDP (Statistics NZ, 2012), about one-quarter of which is land-based, with the rest marine-based, such as oil and gas.
Agriculture provides employment, particularly in rural areas. In 2013, agriculture employed more than 105,500 people, making the sector the second-largest ‘employer’ in New Zealand. Many businesses and industries in New Zealand exist because they provide products or services to the agricultural sector.
Land supports our indigenous biodiversity
Our land environment is habitat to over 200 bird, 57 reptile, four bat, three frog, and around 2,380 plant species (excluding non-vascular plants such as mosses and algae). Of these, 78 percent of vascular plants and 91 percent of animal species exist nowhere else on Earth (ie they are ‘endemic’) (Gordon, 2013). The habitats many of them occupy are also unique, and require specific conditions to be sustained. The continued survival of our plants, animals, and their habitats depends on the ability of the land environment to support them.
Since our arrival in New Zealand, humans have modified the land to support our economy and way of life. This began with the arrival of Polynesians seven or eight centuries ago. Following their arrival, about half the forest in the South Island and about one-quarter of the forest in the North Island were destroyed by fire (Ministry for the Environment, 1997). All nine moa species and many other animals became extinct. Polynesians brought with them animals and plants to support their survival, some of which had an impact on indigenous animals.
After European settlement in the 19th century, milling and burning further reduced forest to about one-third of its original extent, while farming and settlements drained about 90 percent of wetlands. Natural dune lands reduced by 80 percent, as people stabilised and developed them for farming, settlement, and forestry. Europeans also brought animals and plants, a significant number of which have become pests.
The loss of indigenous habitats has slowed, but not stopped. Pest animals and plants now pose the greatest threat to the survival of many of our animals and plants.
For more information on pest species see: The pressures on our land section.
Benefits from land ecosystem
Land-based (terrestrial) ecosystems have many functions that benefit people. These functions, called ‘ecosystem services’, provide food and materials, regulate water flow, and maintain soil stability and fertility. However, the degradation of ecosystems can affect their capability to provide these services, which in turn can affect our economic, social, and cultural well-being. For example, wetlands filter (clean) water, act as a buffer for floodwaters, and are a rich source of freshwater fish. Wetlands remain central to the well-being of Māori, who depend heavily on them for tuna (eels) and other freshwater fish, and for harakeke (flax), raupō (bulrush), and kiekie (a climbing plant used for weaving).