Ka hao te Rakatahi
Caring for our planet

Nā Nuku Tau

I was born on the cusp of the second millennium. As a child, the stuffed huia birds at the Canterbury Museum captured my imagination. The idea of “extinction” – something being here and then not – fascinated me. Extinction happened in the past, when people were careless because they did not have the knowledge that we have today … or so I thought as an 8-year-old.

This is the inheritance of my generation:

  • There are over 4000 plants and animals at risk of extinction in Aotearoa – over 450 of which are considered “nationally critical.”
  • Our lakes and rural rivers often have excessive nutrients such as nitrates and reactive phosphorous. These nutrients increase algae and plant growth, and can destroy the natural ecosystem.
  • Wetlands are shrinking and their quality is degrading, mainly due to conversion to agriculture and livestock grazing.
  • Urban rivers may contain heavy metals such as copper and lead, that kill aquatic life and are definitely not life-enhancing for humans.
  • Pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs) in our urban lakes and rivers are another threat. United States research shows antidepressant medications are accumulating in the brains of fish in the Great Lakes region, and could be making fish unusually aggressive. About 70 per cent of consumed pharmaceuticals are excreted in mimi, and aren’t filtered out by most municipal sewage systems. Therefore, they end up in waterways. As yet little is known on how to prevent this.

It would be easy for me to have a go at Baby Boomers for creating this parlous state, or farmers, or councils, or the government. However, we all enjoy the luxuries of the modern world. So what can the average person like me do?

In my final year of school, I met two young British students on exchange in Christchurch as tutors at my school. Both were vegan. I’d never met a vegan, and only had a foggy awareness of the word’s definition. Many students at my school were farmers or recreational hunters. This meant there were regular arguments and debates that tested the vegan world outlook against the typical Kiwi meat-eater lifestyle.

The British students raised a number of good points and persuaded me to at least think about what I was eating and its impact on the environment. There is a plethora of facts and figures that explain the pros of a plant-based diet for yourself and the Earth around you.

A 2018 Guardian article reported on a study that showed avoiding meat and dairy was the “single biggest way” to reduce unwanted environmental impacts. Without meat and dairy, global farmland could be reduced by 75 per cent and still feed the world. The loss of bush and forest to farmland is the single biggest cause of the current mass wildlife extinction.

As Ngāi Tahu we identify deeply with our whenua. At the forefront of my mihi is my maunga and my awa – my ancestors living and breathing in our midst. Inherent in this connection is the responsibility to look after them, as for generations our people relied on the earth and rivers for sustenance.

Gathering kai as whānau from our lands and waterways keeps these traditions alive, connects us to the past, and enables us to share and celebrate who we are: muttonbirders, whitebaiters, eelers – this is fundamental to our Ngāi Tahutanga.

I’m well aware much of this kai isn’t vegan, but believe we have the right to live with this polarity. Sustainably gathering mussels with Dad to feed our whānau and drop to elderly aunts and uncles on the way home is vastly different from the $100 million-plus dairy conversion in the Mackenzie Basin, or the 30 to 40 million litres of nitrogen-laden cows’ urine that gets washed into the waterways off the Canterbury Plains every day. The important concept is sustainable take. Embedded in our mahinga kai traditions is a deep respect for the resource and its continuance.

We need to think about a plant-based diet with sustainable mahinga kai exceptions, because the facts speak for themselves – cutting back on meat and dairy is the best thing you can do for the Earth’s preservation. In a more local sense, apart from supporting any tribal campaigns, the best thing we can do to individually heal our awa and whenua is stop supporting the industries that are destroying them.

How can we blame the farmers or the council when we are chewing on a mince pie with our milky cup of tea? It just doesn’t make sense to be against an industry, and then actively support it in your day-to-day life with your dollar. While we are ranting about the state of the Rakahuri, it’s possible that the milk in our tea and the beef on our plate was produced by a farm that contributed to the river’s decline!

Many rangatahi will share things on Instagram and Facebook regarding the climate crisis. Yet these same people will often berate those on plant-based diets who choose to actively do something about these issues in their lives. During my (very) brief period as a vegan, I had at least three people make jokes around the apparent disconnect between being Māori and being vegan. “That just doesn’t make sense,” one said. Well it makes complete sense to me.

Many Māori are embracing veganism. Glenda Raumati is a marae kitchen boss. She also runs a health clinic. She has added vegan options like scrambled tofu to the marae menu. An insightful Spinoff article talks to several plant-based Māori, a number of whom cite a kaitiaki duty to their whenua as a prime motivator in their decision.

These are hard issues to grapple, with no easy answers. As Ngāi Tahu and kaitiaki for our whenua, we have customary rights, but we also have a responsibility to be more conscious in the choices we make that affect our whenua. Imagine our Aotearoa if there were no endangered species, and we had not allowed any living creature to suffer the fate of the huia.

Twenty-year-old Nuku Tau (Ngāi Tahu, Te Ngāi Tūāhuriri) is in his second year of a law degree at the University of Canterbury.