A thousand native trees were planted in Queenstown to create a National Welcome Forest – Te Waonui a Tāne – as a symbol of manaakitanga for new migrants. Former race relations commissioner, Joris de Bres, explains the origins of the initiative.
The name Te Wāonui a Tāne (the Great Forest of Tāne) derives from the Māori creation story. Tāne, god of the forest, separates his parents, Papatūānuku (the earth) and Ranginui (the sky) to create light and living space. The trees hold earth and sky apart to maintain this space. Tāne assumed prominence in the story of Aotearoa because the forest encountered by the first Māori arrivals was so different in nature and scale to their places of origin elsewhere in the Pacific. The story is re-enacted in the welcome rituals of the pōwhiri on the marae.
The National Welcome Forest, Te Waonui a Tāne, draws on this concept to create spaces throughout Aotearoa where communities can welcome and acknowledge migrants, and where migrants can put down roots by planting a tree in their name. Some local councils already give new citizens a native seedling at citizenship ceremonies, but this can be short-sighted if they don’t have a place to plant them.
The vision of a National Welcome Forest evolved from discussions I had last year when I returned to the Human Rights Commission to support its response to the Christchurch mosque shootings, pending the appointment of a new race relations commissioner. In my dual capacity as a temporary race relations adviser and chair of the Project Crimson Trust, I talked with the commission, the New Zealand Newcomers Network and MBIE’s Welcoming Cities Programme about the idea.
At the time, Z Energy was working on “We’ve Got Your Back”, a programme to support its retail staff when confronted by racism. This grew into a multi-corporate pledge to take a stand against racism, the “New Zealand Retailers Against Racism” pledge, which supported the Human Rights Commission’s “Give No Voice to Racism” campaign. In support of this work and the value the company places on protecting and planting native forestry, Z Energy offered to fund a thousand trees through Project Crimson’s Trees That Count marketplace in each of the four locations where Welcome Forests were being established.
For a local Welcome Forest to work, it needs on-the-ground partners who have the land, the community connections and the expertise to maintain it. This is not easy to put together, even though people love the idea. We explored a number of options in various parts of the country without success before Queenstown emerged as a strong prospect. Two years ago, on Waitangi Day, Ngāi Tahu and the Queenstown Lakes District Council held the first-ever formal welcome to the diverse communities that have made Tahuna/Queenstown their home. The local mayor, Jim Boult, is very supportive, the council has land available, and the Wakatipu Restoration Trust are experienced planters with their own native plant nursery and projects throughout the Wakatipu Basin. Together they will be the ongoing kaitiaki of the forest, which is in Jardine Park, Kelvin Heights, with views of the Remarkables and Lake Wakatipu.
At first glance, Queenstown may seem an unlikely location right now to launch the National Welcome Forest. With the impact of Covid-19 on the hospitality and tourism sectors, it’s a difficult time for migrant workers there. But the vision for this planting has a longer time horizon. Migrants, whether from other parts of Aotearoa or overseas, will continue to come, work and settle there. They will make a vital contribution, as they have since the beginning of the region’s growth.
I’m reminded of this history in neighbouring Arrowtown, where the humble dwellings of Chinese gold miners from the gold rush of the mid 1800s are preserved. Perhaps, in the future, tourists can also be offered an opportunity to leave a permanent memento of their stay or have a tree planted for them as part of their tourist package.
Three other projects will become part of the National Welcome Forest this year, each with a thousand trees funded by Z Energy through Trees That Count. In Christchurch, the trees are being planted in the Turners Road Forest, where Trees That Count has previously provided trees gifted by New Zealanders as a memorial to the victims of the Christchurch mosque shootings. In Wellington, they will be planted on Mt Victoria as part of the Forest at the Heart of Wellington project, a partnership between the Rotary Club of Wellington and Conservation Volunteers. An initial Auckland location, hopefully one of many, is at Ōrere Point, in a native planting project being undertaken by the Fourforty Mountain Bike Park.
Hopefully other communities will take up the challenge and grow the number of Welcome Forests in Aotearoa in years to come. It starts with a council, iwi, hapū or other landholder willing to make their land available and maintain an appropriate planting area that is accessible to the public. It takes iwi and hapū, multicultural councils, newcomers’ networks, interfaith groups, service groups or other community organisations able to connect people to the forest and organise plantings, and it takes people and businesses willing to contribute to the cost.
The idea of a Welcome Forest offers an additional dimension to our native tree planting projects, just like we can gift or plant native trees to mark milestones in our friends’ and whānau’s life journeys. Working together, we can grow Te Waonui a Tāne as a powerful expression of our manaakitanga and kaitiakitanga, putting our native trees centre stage in caring for our people and our environment, doing our bit to maintain and restore the health of that space between Papatūānuku and Ranginui that is Aotearoa.
Joris de Bres is a former race relations commissioner and chair of the Project Crimson Trust that operates Trees That Count. For more information about Trees That Count, visit www.treesthatcount.co.nz
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