Aotearoa – the last frontier, Neville Peat

Environmental Histories of New Zealand
ed Eric Pawson and Tom Brooking
Oxford University Press, $49.95,
ISBN 019558421X

Environmentally and in other ways, New Zealand is a last frontier – the last temperate-climate land on earth to be discovered and colonised by humans. That occurred about 1000 years ago – or was it 2000?

Far out to sea, long isolated by the splitting and rafting of ancient southern landmasses, New Zealand was ripe for the plucking – and humans have made a meal of it. Environmental historians are able to dine out as well. In this collection they demonstrate the sorts of changes that can occur to a resource-rich land when people choose to settle and tame it. As the editors point out, human impacts on the New Zealand environment are of international interest because they have occurred within an “unusually compressed timeframe”.

You will note this book is about environmental histories in the plural. It does not claim to present the environmental history of New Zealand; it merely selects aspects of environmental change and management across a broad canvas. Impacts on forests, grasslands, wetlands and mountainlands are covered together with overarching subject areas, such as invasive species and environmental law.

This selective approach, involving 21 mostly academic contributors and 18 essays, will suit readers who like to dip into history. If you read the book systematically, you will find it lurching across subject matter and location. Writing styles vary. Some of the writing is resolutely academic. Quoting an Australian source, the editors offer this challenging thought: “the complex intersections of local, regional and international influences produce place-specific outcomes that should not be interpreted in terms of models imported uncritically.” Do not despair. Environmental history is not always this flummoxing. In this book, there is a good amount of illumination and not a little revelation.


First up is an account of the impacts of pre-European Maori on the New Zealand environment. Professor Atholl Anderson, formerly head of the University of Otago Anthropology Department and now with the Australian National University, has produced an outstanding summary of early Maori resource use. He entitled it “A Fragile Plenty”. It is arguably the most riveting piece in the book. Anderson discusses the deforestation and extinctions that occurred in pre-European times and concludes that Maori operated as “optimal foragers”. They exploited natural resources in ways that expended the least effort for the greatest return. Fair enough. But Anderson goes on to suggest they did this “without consideration for distant communities or the sustainability of any particular resource”.

Maori brought from eastern Polynesia the Pacific rat (kiore) and the dog (kuri). Startling new evidence has come to light lately about the rat and its history in New Zealand. Rat remains up to 2,150 years old have been found in the South Island, and 1,800-year-old remains have turned up in the North Island – or so the dating technology tells us. Who brought them? Melanesians or Polynesians? Although some doubt lingers about these extraordinary rat records, practically everyone now agrees the Pacific rat was responsible for an awful lot of faunal extinctions.

All told, through introduced predators and habitat change (mainly deforestation of shrublands and forest through accidental or deliberate fire), extinctions during the pre-European era, according to Anderson, claimed nearly 40 species of birds, a bat, three to five frog species and an unknown number of lizards.

Enter the Europeans. They came to tame. In Cook’s second voyage of exploration, 1773, the naturalist George Forster, in an extravagant burst of writing based on the botany, zoology and astronomy carried out during the expedition’s five-week visit to Dusky Sound, Fiordland, considered that they had brought “the dawn of science, in a country which had hitherto lain plunged in one long night of ignorance and barbarism.” Lincoln University lecturer Jim McAloon’s essay offers a useful analysis of how European imperialism came to exploit New Zealand resources. But he does not explain why it took British capitalism 70 years (from 1769 to 1840) to formally establish itself in
New Zealand.


The subsequent essays focus largely on the destruction of much of New Zealand’s natural fabric by European settlers. Graeme Wynne of the University of British Columbia describes the destruction of forest under the guise of “improvement”, and early efforts to protect it. Wellington-based ecologist Geoff Park tells a similar story about the widespread drainage and ransacking of wetlands on a scale unimaginable today.

Park reminds us that the loss of 85 percent of wetlands in New Zealand is about as severe as occurred anywhere in the world (Britain and Holland have lost 65 percent, France just 10 percent). Colonial authorities decreed that swamps were wastelands in the path of production and settlement – they had to go.

Despite the persistent claims of ornithologists as early as the 1930s that the loss of wetlands meant a significant decline in birdlife, the government took until the 1980s to admit swamps were not adequately represented among the country’s nature reserves. Wetlands were certainly hit hard but there is a modern story as well, not covered by Park – the strenuous efforts of the past two decades to protect and enhance existing swamps and bogs. In less than a generation, most landholders have come around to an appreciative view of wetlands.

New Zealand grasslands provide good fodder for environmental historians, and in this book grassland farming’s dependency on inputs such as phosphate-based fertiliser and agrichemicals comes under critical review by Tom Brooking, Robin Hodge and Vaughan Wood. The “obsession” with grassland farming, they say, was at the expense of other land-development strategies.

In case you might think environmental history is all about natural ecosystems, there are a couple of chapters that discuss urban environments. Eric Pawson claims environmental history has been “heavily ruralised”. He looks at issues such as flooding, air pollution and sewage disposal, and the impact of large engineering works such as the breakwater at the port of Timaru that has ruined Caroline Bay’s summer playground appeal and is now threatening suburban Washdyke with flooding.

Otago University anthropology professor Helen Leach chimes in with another urban theme – the home garden, which she describes as “a landscape of exclusion” as a result of our preoccupation with hedges, trellises, walls and fences. It all points to this underlying philosophy: “the desire of social exclusion outweighs our attachment to the natural landscape.” Otago University law lecturer Nicola Wheen adds a legal spin. She argues that, with the Resource Management Act in its present form and with discretion available to decision-makers, development will tend to override environmental and ecological bottom-lines – “balancing tests are inherently biased towards development”.

In the concluding essay, writer-researcher Christine Dann asks the question: Are we losing ground? And the answer? Yes. She argues that environmental and natural values will definitely be on the losing side if genetic engineering gets a roll-on. Dann calls it a “particularly insidious” form of colonisation that is capable of producing super-weeds and super-pests.


Editors Eric Pawson, head of Canterbury University’s Geography Department, and Tom Brooking, Associate Professor of History at the University of Otago, argue that environmental historians have a duty to unravel the deep intertwining of environment and people. They claim the making of environments is “a social process”.

If an academic market was all the publishers had in mind, that would be a pity, as the book is loaded with powerful arguments and case studies that ought to be available to a general audience. It will appeal to historians, students of the environmental, and resource management planners and policy analysts. It ought to be required reading for resource management people. History is more than an argument about past practices and changes; it is a guide to how we ought to behave in the present and future. In that sense, this book makes an important contribution.

Its black-and-white illustrations are minimal, for the editors and publishers quite properly have allowed ideas rather than images to hold sway. There is a handy glossary (but disregard the labelling of the tuatara as a lizard – it is not) and a good index.

I would have liked to see more discussion of newer environmental angles – for example, renewable versus non-renewable energy issues and the concept of sustainable development. SD is bandied about a lot these days. Sometimes it seems to have more to do with incomes, lifestyles and jobs than with environmental wellbeing, without which not much else will flow. Maybe SD is too new and too little understood as yet. Maybe it will feature in a similar book a century from now. Pity the environment if it does not.


Neville Peat writes on natural history and the environment, and chairs the Otago Regional Council’s Biodiversity Committee.


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