For iwi Māori, this crisis began a long time ago, writes Nadine Anne Hura. And Indigenous people have always known – and cautioned – about the interconnectedness of all things.
An earlier version of this piece was published by PEN International Transmissions.
This piece includes discussion of suicide. Please take care.
I’m driving in the pouring rain at dawn on State Highway 1 between Auckland and Taupō.
When the wheels lock up beneath me the van lifts and drifts towards the ditch. Instinct and 30 years of driving experience help me to stay calm. I let the van coast. The spray from the truck in front hits the windshield and temporarily blinds me. My 14-year-old daughter sits beside me in the front seat. I remember thinking: if we flip, she will bear the impact first.
When the wheels regain traction the road bites hard and sends the van planing towards the centre line. Cars thunder past me in the opposite direction.
Again, I hold on. I hold on and hold on as the seconds split into thousands, waiting to concertina. What else can I do but hold on?
When I was 15 and learning to drive, I lost control of the car on the motorway and we fishtailed across three lanes. It was rush hour and just crazy luck that no one else was around us. The car swung right and I pulled hard to the left while braking. Frantically, I overcorrected, but the steering wheel seemed to be completely detached from the vehicle. If it hadn’t been for my stepfather, who took over and held the wheel steady, I wouldn’t be around today to tell the story.
This time, there’s nobody else to take control of the wheel. On this day it’s just me, my daughter, and a pair of worn-out tyres I should have replaced months ago.
Somehow, we’re all right. The van doesn’t leave the road.
My brother smiles back at me from his photo on the dash. Awesome sis, his expression says.
And then: Concentrate, eh.
Half an hour later we pull into Beaurepaires in Taupō. The bill for two fresh tyres is $600, but they chuck in the wheel alignment for free. While we’re sitting on the curb waiting, my dad rings. I lie and say we’re fine, no issues.
Why worry him? He was up at 5am to see us off. He stood on the footpath in the dark and waved, even though he can’t see or hear anything these days, having lost his hearing aids while waiting for his publicly funded surgery to treat cataracts.
He’s happy I’m able to visit more often, but he’d be happier if I was sitting behind a computer instead of the wheel. Then again, he’s not one to talk. He’d be back on his digger shifting dirt in two seconds flat if he could see. At 73, he endures retirement like a teenager who’s been grounded.
He’s the reason I’m writing this story instead of getting some rest after finally making it back to Wellington, 13 hours after we set off. I don’t have time, but, somehow, I need to make time. Or steal it.
I don’t have time to write an essay on the “broad thematic thread of climate and the environment from a Pacific perspective”, because I should be spending time with my 16-year-old son who’s been at home alone for the past 10 days. Or at the very least I should unpack and put on the washing so that I can get up early tomorrow and familiarise myself with the paperwork in preparation for a board meeting in two days.
Besides, what can I possibly “transmit” about this subject in a few thousand words that will convey the seriousness of all that needs to be said? How to compress this story, and at the same time expand it so it has meaning and depth?
If there’s one thing I’ve learned since getting on the road to visit communities affected by climate change up close, it’s that there’s never enough time. Sifting through priorities and knowing where to focus your energy is an exercise in both strategy and stamina. Everything is urgent; everything needs to be done now.
My cousin Nisha says she’s sick and tired of being praised for her community’s resilience. “How long do we have to be resilient before someone actually does something?” The floods in the valley where my father grew up, and where Nisha still lives, are every year worse and increasing in frequency. My Uncle Chocky, in his 60s, gets flooded in several times a year. He considers himself one of the lucky ones because his house is high enough to avoid inundation, but his driveway is repeatedly washed away, each time leaving him disconnected and cut off for days. Periodically, he fashions a bridge out of fallen logs so at least his moko can get across, but the Waiōmio swells and rises and follows her own sweet path.
Nisha’s been attending meetings of the Far North Flooding Committee for the past two years. As I write this, she’s collecting letters of support to win a position on that same committee, so that she can actually speak at the meetings.
It’s a theme I’ve heard over and over again as I’ve inched my way around the country. Local councils make rules and dish out resources and choose who they will listen to and when. Permits continue to be issued for all kinds of economic ventures and extractions, including mines, dumps, quarries, “acceptable” levels of pollution, water bottling plants, roads, the live export of endangered species for five star restaurants overseas, and more. Opposition by Māori is ignored, while consents and resources are denied and withheld from whānau whose only objective is to be self-sufficient on their own land.
Consultation on critical environmental decisions routinely comes late, and often disingenuously – which is to say, with a kind of placating tolerance of the pleas of those most affected and most invested. You have to wonder if it’s deliberate, when people like Nisha are forced to drop whatever they’re doing, forego income, find childcare, take leave, pay for petrol, and drive hundreds of kilometres in the dark and the rain in order to have any chance of being within earshot of those who operate the levers of power.
I keep asking myself: what is the point of the refrain “amplify Indigenous voices” if the people who need to hear aren’t listening?
There’s both irony and arrogance sitting at the core of it. When it suits, Indigenous knowledge is actively sought, tokenised, trivialised, pressed onto the pages of policy documents and government strategies under a brand that looks green and sounds culturally evolved. In a crisis, or following a natural disaster, iwi are always there to clean up and look after the people, not just practically but spiritually. Yet, away from the cameras and the rhetoric, the reality stinks: more than half our rivers are polluted. We have one of the worst rates of extinction in the world. Millions of dollars are invested in sea walls to protect the properties of the wealthy, while whole families are forced to live in cars and one-bedroom motels.
I know it’s problematic to amass such a complex set of environmental, economic, social and political issues and proclaim they’re one and the same, but I’m a poet, not a scientist. Besides, it feels like stupidity – or at least wilful ignorance – to speak as though they aren’t. Indigenous people have always known – and cautioned – about the interconnectedness of all things.
My daughter, riding shotgun through acres upon acres of farmland that was once native forest, will challenge me if she thinks I’m oversimplifying things by blaming all the problems of the world on colonisation. But the distance between this country’s soaring carbon emissions and the landmarks commemorating the battle sites where Māori fought to protect their land from invasion by the British Crown is but a breath.
For iwi Māori, this crisis began a long time ago. The day is new, but this road is old. What the modern world calls a climate crisis is nothing more than colonisation dressed up in drag. It began with the brutal dispossession of our land and intensified with the stripping of our language and the destruction of our land’s native biodiversity. Colonisation has been pursued overtly and by stealth, in legislation that undermined and disrupted our traditional social and economic way of life – sending people like my dad to build the roads to pave the way for someone else’s prosperity at the expense of his own health.
The climate crisis is the housing crisis is the mental health crisis. We are unwell because Papatūānuku is unwell. What’s coming is worse. How can we talk about solving this sickness if we don’t acknowledge its fundamental causes? Greed, waste, the accumulation of individual wealth, an arrogant belief in the superiority of “man” over every other living organism, and the perception of land as a resource to be wrung out like a dirty cloth and then discarded.
The solutions are local and specific. But what does that look like in practice? So many Māori would go home if we could. Some are already on the move, even if it means living in makeshift houses off the grid and bringing in water by hand to keep the kai in the māra flourishing.
Sovereignty and self-sufficiency are ancient forms of wealth, but many don’t have the option because the land their ancestors fought to protect can’t be wrenched out of private ownership, or because house prices are completely unaffordable, or because a highway has been carved straight through the heart of it, or because the land has been, for years, ill-treated and abused.
Then there are those who don’t want to go home because it hurts. My dad prefers to talk about home rather than go there. His memories are kinder than the reality. In his memories, the eels still run and the rorowai are fat. The homestead stands upright instead of leaning sideways. The garden is abundant with sweet kūmara rather than choking with gorse.
And then there are those, like my brother, who die because they cannot find their way home. My brother died during the second Covid lockdown from exhaustion and depletion of spirit, because his life had lost all sense of meaning and purpose. The official documents declare he died by his own hand, as though “loss of faith” is not a valid cause of death. Has anyone measured the correlation between the rising tide and our rate of suicide?
As Māori, we are often praised for our adaptability and resilience. And it’s true. I’ve seen it, in community after community. I am in awe of the ways in which our people are holding on and holding on, steady hands at the wheel in uncertain conditions. This is work we know how to do. We have hundreds of years of experience mobilising during crisis.
We know our lands better than anyone, not just because we’ve been here for centuries, but because observation – or, “science” – is ingrained in mātauranga Māori. We do our research and invest in and adopt new technologies when their benefit is clear. We protest and object government decisions when the evidence warns us that the outcomes will be harmful.
We do the miles to be present in the rooms where decisions are made with or without us, and if we don’t have time, we steal it – from sleep, if necessary. Always, the work is done with the wellbeing of future and past generations in mind – those riding shotgun, who will bear the impact first if we don’t stay focused, or, worse, allow ourselves to panic.
The struggle, as much as anything, is planning for the future while also trying to fix up and recover from past environmental trauma, at the same time as fighting to oppose further, compounding poor and inequitable decisions. All within a system that, by design, was never set up to listen to us. It’s like being in a car with a teenager at the wheel who has no lived experience driving defensively, and worse, who thinks they know everything because they’ve studied the road code.
It can be frustrating, but when I think of people like my Uncle Chocky, I can’t stay mad for long. Like me, he suffered loss during lockdown last year – his wife of 38 years, the love of his life. At my brother’s graveside he sang for me the song he sang for her, Elvis Presley’s ‘Make The World Go Away’. Some days, that’s exactly where it feels we are heading.
In his letter of support for Nisha, which Uncle Chocky asked me to type up on the computer, he signed off with a dad joke – because the English language is nothing if not good at puns, and because not losing faith is crucial, and because perhaps, in the end, the best way to make people listen is to make them laugh.
Need to talk? Free call or text 1737 any time for support from a trained counsellor.
Lifeline – 0800 543 354 (0800 LIFELINE) or free text 4357 (HELP).
Suicide Crisis Helpline – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO).
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