The environment dominates or influences nearly every aspect of New Zealand’s national life. New Zealanders are an outdoor-loving people, with a way of life that is shaped around action and interaction with the environment. Many New Zealanders regularly walk in parks, visit the coast, swim or fish in rivers or lakes, and play outdoor sports (Phillips, 2007).
Many New Zealanders also relate to the rural environment, with its outdoor lifestyle and focus on agricultural and horticultural production. Our farming heritage is an important element of our national identity (Jacomb, 2002).
As a nation, we frequently use images of the natural environment to present New Zealand to the rest of the world. Our natural scenery attracts tourists and underpins our ‘clean and green’ image internationally.
A recent survey found that 87 per cent of New Zealanders consider the environment is important or very important to them (Growth and Innovation Advisory Board, 2004). In the same survey, New Zealanders rate the quality of the natural environment as being the third most important aspect of New Zealand, behind quality of life and the quality of education.
New Zealanders are also increasingly considering environmental values when they travel. According to a survey conducted by Lonely Planet, 61 per cent of New Zealand travellers said they had purposefully travelled in a low-impact way in the past (for example, catching a bus rather than flying) and 90 per cent of New Zealanders said they would or might do so in the future (Lonely Planet, 2007).
Māori environmental values
The Polynesian ancestors of the Māori people came to New Zealand by canoe between 1000 AD and 1350 AD. After Polynesian settlement, fire had a more widespread and frequent impact on the environment. By about 1600 AD, about a third of the original forest cover had been cleared and replaced by tussock, bracken, and light scrub. With the change in landscape, a quarter of New Zealand's endemic land-based birds, including eight species of moa, and a fifth of endemic seabirds became extinct (Ministry for the Environment, 1997).
Over subsequent generations, Māori acquired in-depth knowledge of the New Zealand environment and developed effective conservation practices. These practices became customs that iwi and hapū used to manage access to and limit the depletion of the environment. These customs continue to shape Māori approaches to environmental management today.
Traditionally, Māori relate to New Zealand as tangata whenua (people of the land). The land, rivers, and mountains of each person’s tribal area are the first things many Māori mention when they introduce themselves formally.
In Māori terms, all living things, including natural and physical resources, possess a mauri (life principle or life force). The mana (authority or prestige) of the tangata whenua is closely related to how well they manage their taonga (highly valued resources or objects), and how successfully they preserve mauri. Therefore, each iwi has responsibilities and obligations for environmental management in its own rohe (area).
For Māori, the concept of kaitiakitanga is of primary importance. Kaitiakitanga is a fundamental concept of the guardianship of a resource for future generations. It is practised as part of tikanga Māori (customary values and practices).
Māori conservation tools
To manage people’s impact on the environment and on mauri, Māori developed the practice of rāhui. Rāhui are periods when no one may take any resources or particular resources (such as shellfish) from an area. These bans may also limit the size of the species people may take, or the amount of their total catch (Hutching and Walrond, 2007). Today, rāhui are often imposed to conserve a resource or to allow a species to regenerate.
In addition to rāhui, Māori traditionally limited harvests of certain species by season and by restricting access to areas such as fishing grounds. Māori also applied other forms of tapu (restriction) to prevent mauri being degraded (for example, through the pollution of fishing areas by human waste, or fishing grounds being damaged by nets and lines).
Changing environmental values
Pākehā or European relationships with New Zealand’s environment have also changed over time. Whalers and sealers arrived in New Zealand in the 1790s, followed a decade or so later by missionaries and traders. Along with large quantities of seal oil and fur, and whale oil (which markedly reduced seal and sea lion populations and took the southern right whale to near extinction), early traders exported harakeke (flax) and native timber to European markets.
Rapid European settlement from 1840 led to the large-scale clearance of land for farming, the establishment of pasture, the reshaping of river systems for gold mining, timber felling, the draining of wetlands, and the introduction of a large number of exotic plants and animals. According to Molloy,1998:
… in the half century from 1860–1910, New Zealand underwent possibly the most rapid landscape transformation of any nation; over 6.5 million hectares of lowland forest (nearly 25 percent of the total land area) were cleared – as much as was destroyed by fires during 1000 years of Polynesian settlement.
New species and pests
Thousands of new species have been introduced to New Zealand, many of which have proved beneficial. In fact, nearly all of the country’s economically important species have been introduced; it would be hard to imagine the current landscape without sheep, cattle, deer, grain crops, apples, grapes, kiwifruit, and pasture grasses.
Until human settlement, native species had no need to defend themselves against hunting, habitat destruction, and the more than 25,000 introduced species. In the thousand or so years since human settlement, many animals (including three species of frog, a bat, the huia, and almost 50 other bird species) have become extinct, and the survival of others is threatened (Ministry for the Environment, 1997; Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, 2006).
Early conservation efforts
As early as the late 19th century, New Zealanders were voicing concerns about the sweeping changes taking place in our environment. In particular, public discussion grew about the effects of land clearance, which had become more obvious with regular floods and soil erosion in settled areas.
Notions of conserving and protecting areas became more prominent from the start of the 20th century. Tongariro National Park was established as the country’s first national park in 1887 when Te Heuheu Tūkino IV, the leader of Ngāti Tūwharetoa, gifted it to the nation. As more national parks were established, New Zealanders, as well as international tourists, visited them for sightseeing and mountaineering.
Soil conservation, land-use planning practices, and flood management were also initiated at this time. For example, the River Boards Act 1884 established a national network to manage rivers. This was followed by the Soil Conservation and Rivers Control Act 1941, which established local catchment boards to coordinate soil and water conservation across whole catchments. This approach of managing land and water in an integrated way, and using natural catchment boundaries as a management unit, represented a world first in environmental management.
More recently, major works such as the Manapōuri and Clyde Dams in the 1970s raised concerns about the impact of infrastructure development on the environment. New Zealanders’ environmental awareness has also been influenced by the growth of new global values which popularised conservation of the environment. Today, the New Zealand public, led by community interest groups and non-government organisations, expect to participate in decision-making that affects the environment to a much greater extent than in the past.
Changing attitudes to the environment
A regular survey that examines New Zealanders' perceptions of the environment identified that the major environmental concerns have shifted over the past few years from air quality, waste disposal, industrial pollution, and introduced pests, weeds, and diseases to water pollution, other pollution, and climate change (Hughey, 2002; 2006).
Attitudes towards the environment have also changed as New Zealanders have come to understand that the environment constitutes not only our rural and wilderness areas, but also the urban areas where most of us live and work.
Another change over the last decade has been the growing focus on sustainable development. Sustainability involves making choices that conserve the environment for future generations, while still maintaining our economic well-being, social systems, and cultural wealth. The current focus on sustainability highlights how actions that benefit the environment can also have social, cultural, and economic benefits, and other implications, and vice versa.
Sustainability is now a mainstream concept among businesses, with 90 per cent of surveyed businesses agreeing that sustainable practices are required across the whole economy (Jayne, 2007). Seventy-eight per cent of surveyed businesses also believed New Zealand would benefit internationally if it became more sustainable.
When surveyed, 77 per cent of New Zealand companies had an environmental policy in place (Massey University, 2005). Environmental reporting, also known as triple bottom line or sustainability reporting, is becoming a more common business practice.