Geoff Park 'Theatre Country - Essays on landscape and whenua'

  • 22 February 2024

Chapter 12 - 'Swamps which might doubtless easily be drained.'

A chapter of this book that especially talks about the Hauraki Plains in detail. A history of the wetland that has become the flat and farmed Hauraki Plains.

"The 85 percent decline in New Zealand's wetlands since European settlement is one of the most dramatic known anywhere in the world;"
UK & Netherlands 60%; France 10%; US 53%

"Yet the recognisable combination of trees, pasture and human structures makes it seem perhaps as if they are all that was there."

This statement is so pertinent to me - it's shocking to me, growing up on the Hauraki Plains, that I was not told, nor did I ask, what was on the Plains prior to the dairy farming. I knew all about the drainage, it was part of our lives. But never questioned the history. We grew up proud of the hard work our great grandparents did to clear their land, and the resulting highly productive farming land. I assumed that what I saw was all that was there.

"In the three years following the Hauraki Plains Act 1908, almost 2000 acres of Māori land were acquired to facilitate what the Act termed 'the more effective carrying out of drainage works".

"Acquired" - was the land bought (fairly), or confiscated?

"It is this, the British settler perception of what Māori considered to be among their most productive resource environment (and this largely refrained from clearing & cultivating) as land still in 'the primeval dress of nature' - 'wilderness' and 'waste', in other words - that is the root cause of swamp drainage having so comprehensively eliminated the indigenous."

"Swamp drainage as history is, to an ecologist, a process by which a thriving, expansionist culture learns how to wring wealth from a certain kind of country by cleverness and industry; comes, inevitably, to need more of this land to swell its success; goes searching for it, finds it lying in another culture's land; and, declaring their land to be 'wilderness' and 'waste', claims it and transforms it into wealth. In New Zealand, the declaring and transforming was effected by laws - laws of Crown."

17c philosopher John Locke: Land "left wholly to Nature, that have no improvement of Pasturage, Tillage or Planting is called, as indeed it is, waste."

p. 188.
"By the time the 19th century was out, the 'redeeming' of both the Hauraki and the Waikato Swamps were being affected by what the Government officially called 'land improvement' schemes."

p. 189.
"The high regard for lowland swamps in the traditional Māori landscape derived from the often vast areas of country that they watered and gave access to, from the birds that were attracted to them for food and breeding sites, and from the native fish that came to spawn. Dominating the swamps were rushes, reeds, flax, and the kahikatea, or white pine. Mature fruiting kahikatea were a seasonal mecca for birds and people. Waikakā (spring eels, mudfish), a traditional delicacy for presentation at feasts, hibernated during the summer drought beneath kahikatea roots. Myriad indigenous fish species such as inanga, kōaro, and the kōkopu species migrated through the estuaries and lagoons that would be taken by Crown law for swamp-drainage scheme spillways, through into the pools enclosed by flax and raupō in the gaps of the kahikatea swamp forests. It was these conditions that made tidal swamp-plain rivers like the Waihou, Waikato, and Manawatū great fisheries prior to British agricultural settlement.

Ecologically, these were landscapes of interconnection and interaction, the antithesis of the boundary lines and the grid subdivision of the country into legally separated units desired by English land laws."

Such a full description of the fauna and foliage in the Hauraki Plains, a food basket for everyone - "a landscape of interconnection and interaction".

p. 190.
"Customary Māori rights to swamps and waterways, those with which the terms 'taonga', fisheries', 'forests', and 'properties' in the second article of the Treaty of Waitangi are concerned, were primarily use rights, from which ownership derives. Under English law the reverse applied; the right to use and manage a resource flowed from ownership of it."

Two simple sentences which explain very clearly to me the issue in the perception of the Treaty to the two parties involved, and still today.

"As early as the 1930s, ornithologists had tied the national decline in indigenous birds to agriculture's transformation of lowland swamps. In the 1950s, the impact of lowland swamp clearance on indigenous fauna became a conservation issue as, in district after district, once-common wetland birds like the matuku (bittern) became rare. But it was not until the 1960s that there was any acknowledgment by the state that swamps had intrinsic, indigenous values, over and above their potential productivity as farmland."

I haven't yet considered the impact of the loss of bird life. We always seem to be making decisions based on money, money comes first in the process. People, the environment, and the planet don't seem to be a priority for those making decisions and laws.

"by the late 1890s, anyone who had anything to do with the land and nature was aware of the dramatic decline in bird numbers."

"The birds suffered," he said, "because settlers cut down the bush, not because of hunting." - MP for Northern Maori, Hōne Heke Rankin.

"He had strong support in the local Māori branch of the New Zealand Labour Party and in 1949 made a bid for the nomination of the Northern Māori seat, but the Rātana party had too firm a grasp to be easily dislodged." -



Further reading:
Beaglehole 'The Endeavour Journal of Joseph Banks.

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