New Zealand: An Example of Development at the Expense of the Environment

New Zealand, the small island off the coast of Australia, which has been consistently gaining popularity amongst college students as a ‘stellar’ study abroad, is also an interesting case within the environmental disciplines. New Zealand has a very distinctive ecosystem, which through colonization is slowly becoming more and more like the rest of the Western World. Even though New Zealand was only colonized by the British a mere two hundred years ago, the impact those two hundred years has made on the environment is catastrophic. However, the detrimental processes of invasive species introduction and slash and burn clearing methods actually began more than six hundred years earlier by the Maori of New Zealand. Therefore I will be referring to colonization of New Zealand as when the first humans came to this island a thousand years ago. Peter Horsley, a leading New Zealand environmental educator says that, “prior to human settlement, approximately 78 percent of New Zealand’s total area was forested, with 14 percent in the alpine zone, and the remaining land comprising drylands, lakes and wetlands. Today, however, forested land has been reduced to only 30 percent of the total land area (23 percent native forests; seven percent planted production forest), while pasture and arable land now dominates 51 percent.” New Zealand’s unique flora and fauna had over ten million years to generate without any human or mammal (except the bat) interventions; therefore the last thousand years has made a devastating environmental impact. NZ traditionally has a wide variety of endemic species of birds and bats, as well as 85 percent endemic plants and many endemic insects. The soil is very thin and infertile and therefore there were few carbohydrates grown on the island. Because there was very little nutritional food grown or living on NZ, the Maori brought the Polynesian rat and dog over to the island as a source of food. These two animals quickly ravaged the numerous endemic species of flightless birds, as well as many other endemic species. “Among these were twelve species of herbivorous moa, the largest of which weighed more than two hundred kilograms and reached a height over two metres,” says Horsley. The Moa supposedly looked similar to an ostrich (the largest known living bird) however could grow to be twice the size! Also since the land was virtually unable to cultivate much, the Maori decided to burn the harsh forests to provide land for cultivation. Through this process the Maori burned many hectares of virgin forests and changed the topography of New Zealand immensely. Horsley also stated that forests “have little ability to recover from repeated fire or to out-compete introduced grasses where pasture is maintained for exotic grazers (i.e. cattle and sheep). Human impact has been truly devastating for many native forest ecosystems, and most of the original lowland forest types in New Zealand have been reduced to small remnants.” The Maori’s also brought over a number of invasive plants that would overtake native plants and severely alter the natural landscape. The European colonials continued the process of ravaging much of New Zealand’s original landscapes. Christine Dann, a member of the Green Party in New Zealand, said in 2002 that, “hardly anything remains of the original 56,600 hectares of virgin forest they encountered when they arrived-by the late twentieth century only 61 hectares were left.” These colonialists also brought over invasive species from their homes. Dann also said that, “the imposition of alien agricultures and exotic biota on indigenous ecosystems causes problems in time and space that have spread far beyond the point of initial introduction.” There was such an increase of travel to and from New Zealand that more and more animals and plants were being introduced daily. The number of ships that industrialization brought to New Zealand also perpetuated the introduction of new species. Even now with the strict regulations on invasive species being brought to New Zealand, there is still the problem of genetic engineering. “In 2000 more than one-third of the money provided for public science research in New Zealand was spent on genetic engineering projects,” said Dann. Now when you fly over New Zealand you do not see the vast forest of yesteryear but the harsh realities of a patchwork of monocultures, none of which are indigenous. Also industrialization has brought much pollution with it as it has elsewhere. New Zealand’s air, water and soil are becoming more contaminated with fossil fuels, animal waste, artificial fertilizers and pesticides than ever before. These are all responses to the British colonials push for participation in the competitive global market. Though New Zealand’s environment has undergone many detrimental changes caused by the Maori and colonials, they are both now realizing their mistakes and looking for ways to respond to this problem. The Maori have introduced the idea of KIATIAKITANGA which is a sophisticated environmental policy based on the holistic approach to ecological restoration. Also there have been many conservation groups which have been working to restore New Zealand’s landscape to the lush green world it once was. Through their work New Zealand still may be able to replenish its resources and bring back the environment it once knew.