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Let's create jobs by restoring the Raukūmara forest

Updated: Aug 28, 2023

Like other governments, New Zealand has been challenged to treat the post-Covid-19 recovery as an opportunity to reset our economy with multiple bottom lines of social, environmental, economic and health justice, with Te Tiriti o Waitangi front and centre in the recovery process.


JOHN BISSET/STUFF


On average, countries that had enforced confinements reduced emissions by 26 per cent at the peak of confinement, with New Zealand reducing our emissions by a whopping 41 per cent (second only to Luxembourg).


Sadly, if we return to business as usual we will only see an approximately 5 per cent emission reduction over the year.

While many governments grapple with the challenge of retaining climate wins in their recovery plan, there is one integrated approach to climate change that has been tried and tested, with demonstrable outcomes. Recent studies have shown that forest systems managed by Indigenous peoples hold 33 times the global energy emissions of 2017.


This comes hot on the heels of international recognition that Indigenous territories contain 80 per cent of the world’s biodiversity. Internationally there is growing recognition that conservation partnerships with Indigenous communities provide the strongest climate wins, and a model for implementing this approach is being considered by the New Zealand government right now.


The Raukūmara Pae Maunga project is a conservation partnership programme between the Crown and East Coast Iwi Ngāti Porou and Te Whānau-a-Apanui. The Raukūmara forest block, a sprawling 250,000ha wilderness area, spans the length of both iwi territories and is a part of the North Island’s last remaining landscape-scale contiguous forest system.


Forests managed by Indigenous and local people across the world hold nearly 300 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, a study found.


Neglect at the hands of successive governments has seen this once-abundant native forest system fall victim to introduced pests, to the point where ecologists describe the Raukūmara ecosystem as being in freefall collapse.


While the loss in biodiversity is an obvious concern for conservationists and iwi alike, there is another layer of concern for rural East Cape communities.


The Raukūmara forest, in its previous damp, cool, biodiverse state houses the headwaters of all of the major East Cape river systems, as well as generating atmospheric water vapour that travels along the eastern seaboard, providing much-needed rain, and subsequent soil moisture across hundreds of kilometres of coastline.


The Raukūmara is the East Coast rainmaker, and this is invaluable to a region whose climate forecasts include progressively longer, hotter drought periods.

The combined onslaught of possum and deer browsing has had a multi-layered impact on the biodiversity and subsequent rain-making capacity of the Raukūmara forest. Huge canopy gaps allow light into forest systems that have remained cool, dark and moist for millennia.


ROBERT KITCHIN/STUFF


Tina Ngata hopes the Government will fund the restoration of the trampled Raukūmara forest as one of its shovel-ready projects.


Trampled and browsed undergrowth, along with loss of bird habitats, mean that the canopy gaps are not being filled by new growth, and the result is a silent, bare, dry shell of a forest that barely resembles the teaming lush undergrowth of previous generations.


Restoring the Raukūmara forest system will take years of intensive pest control and monitoring, and Te Whānau-a-Apanui and Ngāti Porou are ready to step up to that challenge. Their joint proposal to government features multiple opportunities for community employment and small business development, as well as education, training and research.


It is the integrated, Treaty-based, transformative model of green economic development that has been heralded as the pathway ahead for the post-Covid-19 recovery.


Partnering with CarbonWatch NZ (a Niwa-led collaborative research programme) will allow iwi to track the impacts of pest control upon carbon uptake in the Raukūmara, which will be globally significant research.


A pilot study by the CarbonWatch NZ team revealed that native forests could be much more effective carbon sinks than have been formerly acknowledged, and the Raukūmara project allows for this line of research to be further explored.


LAWRENCE SMITH/STUFF


Introduced pests, such as brushtail possums, have damaged forests, including the Raukūmara, right across New Zealand.


CarbonWatch NZ lead investigator Dr Sara Mikaloff-Fletcher says

"this would be an extraordinary opportunity to observe the effect of large-scale pest control on forest carbon cycling in real time. If pest eradication has a significant impact on carbon uptake, this could be an important tool to help New Zealand reach our zero carbon future."

For rural farming communities that suffer significant climate stress, tracking the impacts of the project upon their rainfall and soil moisture levels also holds significant interest. This is a project that matters to conservationists, primary industries and rural communities alike.


The Raukūmara Pae Maunga project is a shovel-ready, green reset opportunity for the Government that aligns with international science around Indigenous conservation partnerships and climate change, and this couldn’t come at a more vital time. It holds the potential to be a post-Covid-19 economic recovery model for Aotearoa and the world.


Tina Ngata is an Indigenous rights advocate and environmental educator.

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