After Shannon Te Huia saw the health of his awa deteriorating, he decided it was time to take action. Last night Te Huia was named Kiwibank New Zealand Local Hero of the Year for his work with Waikato communities preserving their environments.
In this bonus episode of When the Facts Change, The Spinoff’s business editor Michael Andrew talks with 2021 Kiwibank Local Hero of the Year Shannon Te Huia. Subscribe and listen on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your favourite podcast provider.
The Waikato region is famous for two things, its farms and its rivers. Driving south over the Bombay Hills, you’re suddenly met with a view of water flowing like blue veins through the land, cutting through a vast expanse of grass green paddocks. Water plays a vital role in the everyday lives of those who call the Waikato home.
Shannon Te Huia grew up at Mangatoatoa marae, about 15 minutes south of Te Awamutu along State Highway 3. The marae is situated just off the main drag, on the banks of the Pūniu River. Driving down the loose metal road towards the main meeting house, you get the sense that this is not your average marae. Rows upon rows of native plants, ranging in size, age, and species, stand neatly on either side, soaking in sunshine and preparing to be planted.
“We can’t keep up with demand,” says Te Huia as he welcomes me to his whenua, proudly pointing to his maunga Kakepuku standing tall against the bright blue horizon, and the Pūniu River flowing past the marae. A wide smile spreads across his sun-kissed face, reminding me of a proud father showing off his child for the first time. It’s clear that Te Huia has a deep bond with this land.
We round a corner, entering a shed full of nursery equipment. There the team is busy preparing trees to be planted. They all greet us with a unified “kia ora” and quickly gather to offer a hongi.
The 40-year-old Te Huia has fond memories of growing up here, especially his time spent in and around the awa. He speaks about catching eels with his whānau and spending time relaxing in the water during hot summer nights. It’s obvious Te Huia is proud of where he comes from.
“What’s important to us is our whānau, marae, iwi, hapū, your awa, and your maunga. The taiao is important to us,” says Te Huia.
Find all the winners from the 2021 Kiwibank New Zealander of the Year Awards here.
Unfortunately, the awa that has provided for Te Huia and his whānau for generations is not as healthy as it once was. After studying civil engineering specialising in environmental engineering and spatial science, Te Huia recognised that urgent action was needed to help stop the degradation of the awa he loved so much.
“It was about having an understanding of what’s important and valuing things that are important to us,” says Te Huia.
The timing couldn’t have been better when Te Huia befriended a group of mates through surfing, who happened to be running an organisation dedicated to cleaning up New Zealand’s beaches, rivers and protecting its waterways.
“I met the guys from Sustainable Coastlines [co-founder Sam Judd was the 2013 Young New Zealander of the Year] and they offered to help me out. They had some of the things I needed to take my idea to the next level,” Te Huia says.
Te Huia’s idea was a simple, yet highly effective way, of not only cleaning up the river, but also helping to future-proof its health far beyond his lifetime. The idea was to propagate and plant native trees in and around waterways, wetlands, streams, rivers and beyond. It would be a way to help clean the environment he loved so much, restore ecosystems, grow biodiversity, and have a positive impact on the local economy. This would be the beginnings of Pūniu River Care.
In addition to producing the air we breathe, trees provide a range of other important benefits to water systems, people and animals. They slow down rainwater runoff, reducing flooding, erosion, pollution and refilling aquifers. Trees also provide an important habitat for all kinds of animals and insects, plus they keep our rivers cool. They capture carbon dioxide, locking it away in their roots, leaves and wood.
Te Huia could see the power and potential of trees. He wanted to amplify it.
“Enough research had been done and we couldn’t really write much more about it. It was time to do the mahi,” says Te Huia.
The first step was establishing the structure of the organisation. Te Huia wanted his vision to long outlive him and he knew he needed stakeholders who would be in for the long-haul, committed to fully seeing the vision for clean and healthy waterways become a reality.
“You need stakeholders that are going to be in there for a long time and that’s your marae,” says Te Huia. “What’s important to us is our whānau, iwi, hapū, your awa, and your maunga. The taiao is important to us.”
Recognising the unbreakable bonds iwi have with their awa, Te Huia decided to give delegates from each marae along the Pūniu River voting rights in his incorporated society. The benefits of this structure include accountability to the marae, having their mandate to do the mahi, and the fact that they would always have the best interests of the awa at heart.
After gaining the blessings of his elders and also receiving some of their wisdom, Te Huia built Pūniu River Care’s first nursery right next to his marae. He began by planting trees around Mangatoatoa Pā site. Before long, word of the work Te Huia was doing spread and he began landing contracts to plant for the local council and other organisations throughout the region, including iwi and private landowners, primarily farmers.
The six years since have been a journey of continuous growth for Te Huia, both personally and professionally. Pūniu River Care now employs over fifty locally-based staff. They have expanded their nursery’s capacity to grow tens of thousands of plants simultaneously and have already planted around 750,000 plants. Demand continues to grow, especially from farmers and others in the private sector. He hopes to continue landing contracts with governmental and non-government organisations, private landowners, and others who want to regenerate ecosystems by planting native trees.
“I never get sick of hearing about how great a job we’re doing. One of the best things about what I do is hearing people say that I’m inspiring them, because it means that I’m inspiring them to care of our environment,” says Te Huia.
As you pass through Te Awamutu, it doesn’t long to see the effect Pūniu River Care is having on the small rural town. Locals drive around in company vehicles and proudly don company branded clothing. They are proud to work for Pūniu River Care and the town is proud to have them there. All employees are paid no less than the living wage and the money going back into the local economy is helping to bolster local businesses.
Whilst what the company explicitly does for the health of the environment is obvious, there are also intangible benefits that come with educating people on their role of kaitiaki of the taiao. Working with local stakeholders such as beef and lamb farmers, hapū, and central government from the beginning, Pūniu River Care has changed the way these groups can work together to protect the environment they’re so close.
“I think launching and propagating plants are the activities but the meaning and the purpose behind it is far broader. It’s about kaitiakitanga and this is our interpretation of doing that,” says Te Huia.
Te Huia shows me to the front of the whare tipuna, Te Maru o Ihoa. It is a tall, intricately carved whare and feels grand, as it stands proudly facing the river with the old whare next to it. There’s a maara kai not far from the whare and a nursery full of life and activity out the back. There’s even a pig pen and a few other live animals that they keep on site.
“It wasn’t always like this,” says Te Huia. He explains the marae was in a state of disrepair until it was recently being renovated.
“That’s one of the best things about doing what we do. We can be here at the marae every day, even when it’s not busy. We get to come here and experience the full beauty of our marae every single day.”
The work doesn’t stop for Te Huia and the Pūniu River Care team, who handle the whole process from collecting seeds through to maintenance and care of the plants once they’ve been moved to their new homes. The year-round schedule enables the staff to feel a sense of security in their jobs and empowers them to stay and contribute to the development of their region. The most powerful thing for his staff, however, is the fact the work they do is contributing towards the health of the awa they all care for so greatly.
The environmental impact of what Pūniu River Care does is a slow process that happens over years, but the impacts on the community are immediately obvious. Locals have meaningful full time employment, the economy is boosted, people are becoming educated on how to properly care for the environment, and more people are becoming reconnected with the taiao by being immersed in it daily.
Whilst the full benefits of what the company does will not be felt for years to come, Te Huia’s desire and drive to do something to improve the health of the Pūniu River has created a chain of positive impact for the Waikato region and beyond. Te Huia’s determination and long-term vision has created more than just an organisation, it’s created a movement that keeps growing bigger.
“It’s not rocket science; you just want to be able to do bombs and catch eels. You know, make it safe for me to swim with my daughter in the river.”
This content was created in paid partnership with Kiwibank. Learn more about our partnerships here.