As the seas rise, one community retreats and another returns. Nadine Anne Hura on the parallel universes of climate change.
In my hometown of Papakura, I walk.
Porchester. Cosgrove. Walters. Clevedon. The so-called “Great South”.
Every time I return, I wake early, slip out of bed, pull on my orange swanny and step into the chill.
I recognise this place because I grew up here. I was born at the obstetric hospital next to the railway lines. I learned to drive in a red Ford Escort behind the army base where my grandfather was stationed after the war. I delivered pamphlets to hundreds of houses in Rosehill and can still tell you which letterboxes refuse circulars.
In Takanini, where my dad lives now with my sister and her babies, new houses rise and spread as surely as the mist clears. Estuary waders stoically step through shards of polystyrene floating in manmade storm water creeks. Pūkeko and tōrea jostle with the jagged teeth of diggers, raising their young in the few remaining pockets of swamp that have not yet been filled with concrete.
I know this place, but it’s changing in front of my eyes. Fascination pulls me to investigate.
Late last month, in Wellington, the government released a consultation document on its proposed National Adaptation Plan. If your eyes haven’t already glazed over, the crux of it is this: the government is about to make a bunch of decisions that will directly influence what happens in Papakura in the future, as well as in your hometown, and every village and valley and coast across the country.
Or more accurately, it will influence how those who currently hold the power decide how we move into the future.
The National Adaptation Plan, or the “NAP”, is significant because the landscapes we grew up in are changing faster than many of us can get our heads around. There are the big things that make the news, like urupā slipping into the sea in Tairāwhiti and wetlands ablaze in Southland. But there are other changes too. Things that aren’t easily articulated or photographed or measured by the tools of modern science. Tohu.
I asked my dad, bored out of his mind after surviving cardiac arrest, why he doesn’t plant a garden. He spends the days padding between the bedroom and kitchen, phoning each of his kids in turn, once, twice, sometimes three times a day. The lawn – the only job around the house he’s allowed to do – has been mowed within an inch of its life.
Sometimes he stands at the window, as if he can will the grass to grow just by watching it.
“You could put some potatoes in,” I said once, gazing out at the blades of harakeke glinting beyond the fence.
He laughed and walked away. “Can’t grow kai around here daughter. The land is sinking. It’s all peat under here.”
These are the tohu of climate change that don’t grab the headlines. In flash language, you could call it “food sovereignty” – the ability for my dad, who grew up in the fertile valley of Waiōmio and whose mother tended a māra all the days of her life, to grow his own kai.
Instead, he and pretty much my whole whānau are dependent on what’s grown elsewhere and delivered – at ever-increasing prices – to the nearest supermarket. Even the water my dad drinks to take his medication at night is bottled.
Housing insecurity is another, less-visible tohu of climate change. Who can afford a house? Nobody really believes it’s possible to save for a mortgage while living on the minimum wage, do they? And why even bother to put down roots if your landlord can give you notice in a month?
I have whānau, probably you do too, who’ve given up on the city and moved back home. Whānau who live staunchly off grid, proud of their whare whether canvas or corrugated iron or fully kitted out tiny home. A cousin said to me once, over the blare of the generator and the snap of the Māori independence haki lying overhead, “it’s not much my cuz, but it’s ours.” He cupped a fist and thumped his chest. “Better to be kings on our own whenua than slaves on someone else’s.”
It’s incredible to see the tide that took our parents and grandparents away finally returning. My dad won’t be riding it, and I’m unlikely to either, but there are plenty of whānau who want to, and will. The valley is constantly in flood – also caused by climate change – and the old homestead where my nan tended her māra is bereft of power and running water, but her garden is still pumping.
If only it were that simple. The stranglehold of Pākehā laws are a source of ongoing conflict. Who does the land block belong to? Who was promised what? What does the deed say? Who’s going to clear the enormous debt of rates? This too, is climate change, but by a different name: colonisation.
Then there are those who can’t ever go back, either because the whenua is occupied, or because they have been too long gone, or simply because they don’t know where their tūrangawaewae even is. For some, the situation is life or death: their ancestral homelands, the very source of their whakapapa, are forecast to be permanently under water in the span of a generation.
This is the reality Te Hāpua is grappling with. The hapū have just launched an intensive two-year process to wānanga how they will shift and adapt as Tangaroa rises and expands – faster and more aggressively than previous predictions. The process will necessarily involve shifting marae and other vulnerable buildings, but where to, and how and with what pūtea?
Marama Pōhatu, chair of Muriwhenua Incorporated and lead researcher, says that interest and energy and concern has never been so high. At their AGM this month, whānau dialled in from as far away as Dubai and Poland. Everyone is concerned. Motu Whāngai Kurī, the island off the coast of Te Hāpua, from which the identity of Ngāti Kurī is derived, is receding from view. How must that feel?
“Whānau are applying for licences to occupy,” Pōhatu says. “They want to come home and live where Nanny and Pāpā lived. And I get it, I do. But in some places it’s just not going to be viable.”
Mutuwhenua Incorporated has begun consulting kaumātua and kuia – the ones who remain, and have witnessed the changing landscape with their own eyes. In doing so, they have uncovered historic plans to shift the wharenui, proving their tūpuna were onto it years ago.
To read the NAP – if you can stay awake – is to feel like it was drafted by people living in a parallel universe. It asks for opinions on how to share the costs of things like evacuation and relocation and managed retreat, seemingly unaware that many Māori, forced through the less visible impacts of climate change, are doing everything they can to try to get back.
Oh, the irony. Sea walls are being chewed up and spat out like loose teeth, and coastal property owners are scrambling to sell before the insurance companies pull out. All the while, Māori are packing up their cars and driving headlong into the eye of it.
These are whānau who have resolved that the only way to survive the desperate struggle and churn and burn and slog and discontent and food and job and housing insecurity is to return to the place whence their tūpuna came, sinking or not. Hui all over the country are now about restoration, revivival, reforestation and reclamation. Survivals intertwined.
Ko au te whenua, ko te whenua ko au.
If the NAP does what it says it will, no longer will wealthy property owners be able to block local councils from informing potential buyers just how vulnerable their homes on low-lying whenua are. Suddenly, the promise of profit through the prism of climate change looks more like liability and loss.
But if you don’t own a property, let alone a beachfront mansion, what do you care about insurance or LIM reports? Are you really going to want to spend your minimum wage taxes supporting the people who bought or acquired or inherited the land your ancestors lost, and who have enjoyed the luxury of creature comforts for generations, so that they can start over on higher ground somewhere else?
My nephew, a 28-year-old newly minted small business owner, gave me his non-scientific, layman’s assessment of climate change and the NAP: “We’re already fucked, it doesn’t matter what we do.”
The inference is that he doesn’t care, but I talked to him about the NAP at length and it’s clear that he does. He’s unlikely to read the consultation documents or attend the Friday evening webinars hosted by the Ministry for the Environment, but it’s wrong to assume that he, and so many other workers and business owners out there who don’t recycle and can’t afford to turn their fleet hybrid, don’t care about the environment.
It’s just that the government doesn’t speak the same language. The language of “Mate, I pay income tax and road user charges and GST and where does that money even go?” And, “I work hard, I deserve to buy a house of my own one day.”
Right now, my nephew and plenty of others like him are invested in things not changing too drastically. The data showing the projected sea level rise at different degrees of warming hasn’t yet soured the Kool-Aid of “economic growth forever and ever amen”. In fact, the NAP asks if climate change isn’t a disaster dressed up as an opportunity to reinvent the neoliberal wheel – refer bullet point 5a “economic opportunities in adapting to climate change”.
And you can keep drinking the Kool-Aid if you want to. My nephew’s prospects for the future lies largely in the hands of politicians he only hears in sound bites on the radio between jobs. He’s up before dawn, transporting the same diggers and dozers that his grandpa used to drive back in the day.
Dad couldn’t be prouder, standing at the window imagining his moko shifting heavy machinery from one new subdivision to another on the back of his 11-tonne flat decker during Auckland rush hour. He’s improving his lot, an entrepreneur helping solve one crisis – the crisis of housing – without consciously or deliberately intending to exacerbate another – the crisis of biodiversity. Translation: the diggers and dozers lay the concrete that destroys the habitat of the tōrea and the pūkeko, and my dad instinctively knows there isn’t any point in planting a garden because the land wants to be, needs to be, will eventually one day return to, a swamp.
And where does the concrete come from?
From quarries. Quarries like the one owned by J Swap in Te Wāotū, which is currently facing a rare prosecution by Heritage New Zealand after the destruction of Pirauti Pā into almost oblivion, ignoring desperate pleas from hapū and stop-work notices from South Waikato District Council and Heritage New Zealand.
“Aggregate”, which is the raw material of concrete, is a word that is far easier on the conscience than “wāhi tapu”. It’s less offensive to imagine that the roads and railways and houses and new subdivisions that we live in and drive on have come from thin air, rather than from the guts of someone else’s ancestral land. Once the resource is sucked dry, the deep wounds left behind are eventually filled – with rubbish or waste from neighbouring building sites, or sometimes, with more new housing. These ones, of course, built with stones that are trucked in from a different hole, a different ancestor. Once the houses are up, contractors come in to fashion artificial estuaries out of the stormwater overflow, while pumps go 24/7 to prevent the whole thing filling up like a bathtub.
The NAP explicitly states that the government wants to avoid increasing extreme weather events that will adversely impact cultural connection to whenua, as though corporations are not blatantly destroying those connections every day, before our very eyes, and have been for decades. Far easier to point to future extreme weather events than to hold companies and individuals to account for the destruction right now.
The biggest failure of the NAP, to me, is that it seriously fails to communicate how all these things are interlinked. It can’t tell a story. It can describe the elements of a story, but not how they are connected. It’s written in a language that many, many people are not fluent in.
It wouldn’t matter – if it really didn’t matter what those who hold the power choose to do because we’re fucked anyway – but it does matter. Because if you can’t tell a convincing story that hooks a person’s heart and mind, they’ll find a better one. A story that does make sense, and is told in a language they understand by people they trust.
We saw what happened when the government failed to listen to Māori as the pandemic bore down. Our communities said let us speak to our own. Give us the same resource as you have, and let us do vaccination our way, just like we were promised under the Treaty.
But the government was slow and our voices weren’t heard until it was too late. In the social media echo chamber, misinformation spread like a New York Times bestseller. Eventually the protest was born. How long till we hear that climate change, like Covid, isn’t a real threat, and that it’s just another elaborate conspiracy cooked up by the government and the media to take our jobs and rip away our livelihoods, all for their own evil ends?
These, too, are tohu. The pandemic is not separate from climate change, but part of the powder keg of environmental forces that has given rise to it. It’s a warning. Unless the government seriously engages with the parallel universe that Māori occupy within the prism of climate change, and gives us the resource to speak to our own, whether we reside in cities or valleys or papakāinga, Māori will yet again be left out and left behind.
We are ready. We have never not been capable of adapting, moving, surviving, thriving, telling a yarn. In some cases, our people made the plans decades ago. But we are so tied up fighting the historical impacts of climate change, like the Resource Management Act – which the NAP concedes needs a total overhaul – in places like the environment court. We are fighting local councils who issue permits to develop houses in wetlands, ignoring cultural assessment reports that say it’s a terrible, terrible idea. We fight to prevent the bottling of water for export by authorities in one office, while authorities in another neglect to maintain the infrastructure that ensures our own water won’t be contaminated. We sometimes fight each other, because colonial legislation tore our families apart and eventually made some rich and others poor. We fight continually in myriad different climatic ways; to hold on to our babies and to keep a roof over our heads. We defend and resist like human seawalls on a king tide, in ways both visible and unseen.
Storytelling is not only the means of communicating the deep interconnectedness of our diverse realities, it’s also the instruction telling us what to do about it. Hardly “myths”, as Elsdon Best liked to call them, pūrākau are our original sources of knowledge and wisdom. These stories, embedded in and derived from the whenua, passed faithfully down the generations, are the templates that tell us how to live and adapt with and within the dynamic, ever-shifting environment. It’s in our whakapapa. And unlike the NAP, our most important stories do not subconsciously instruct us to sleep.
A few nights ago, as I slogged through another page of it, my dad rang, chuffed with himself.
“Why are you so happy?” I asked.
I could picture him standing at the window, surveying his rented kingdom built on peat, as pūkeko brazenly stalked the fence in full view of prowling neighbourhood cats.
“I was allowed to mow the lawns today, daughter,” he said. “It’s been a good day.”
The government is inviting feedback on the National Adaptation Plan, which you can download and read in full here. You can also attend public webinars, including workshops specifically to hear from Māori, facilitated by the Iwi Chairs group Te Ihirangi. Consultation closes on June 3, 2022.
This is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.