OPINION: When the Our Land 2018 report came out from Statistics New Zealand last week, it clearly showed the way we've used our land has been led by destructive self interest – we've sacrificed our native plants and animals to turn a quick buck, while the very soil under our feet washes away.
We've made short sighted decisions as a country, asset stripping the environment to prop up industries that produce low-value commodities. We may only be just realising the true costs of the environmental debt that's been incurred. But we're all paying the price.
The report shows that from 1996 to 2012, we lost 31,000 hectares of tussock grassland, 24,000 hectares of native shrub land and 16,000 hectares of native forest. Each of these losses is the result of government agencies not doing their job.
Take the Mackenzie Country – where the Government has practically gifted vast swathes of public land to private interests; local government has given permission for irrigated dairy farms in the closest thing New Zealand has to a desert; and Fonterra is forced by its Act of Parliament to collect milk regardless of where or how that milk was produced.
The report describes the fate of one of the many indigenous species in the Mackenzie, the Tekapo ground weta. Declines between 2010 and 2014, just as dairy conversions in the Mackenzie dramatically increased, have put this species at immediate high risk of extinction – before it has even had a chance to get a formal name.
The Our Land 2018 report also mentions the plight of the Australasian bittern, a bird which disguises itself as native grasses. Once common in wetlands, it is now more endangered than kiwi. We've lost 90 percent of our wetlands already, and are still destroying more.
The bittern's stronghold, the internationally significant Whangamarino wetland, is routinely flooded and drained for agriculture, sedimentation is high, and in 2014 it turned an alarming brassy red. Bittern calls have decreased there in the last decade, and current estimates are that only 900 birds remain in New Zealand.
We know that we can help species like the Tekapo ground weta and the Australasian bittern; the report notes conservation status has improved for 20 bird species. Spending money on conservation works. But the vast majority of our native land birds, reptiles, and frogs are in trouble. We need to make major changes how we use the land they live on and we live from.
If we allow them to, forests protect rivers and our health. Wetlands and mangroves protect the coast and our coastal towns. Healthy soils protect whole ecosystems, and our food growing regions. Our economy and well being depend on our environment.
This means government agencies need to step up and do their job and Government Ministers must see to it that they do.
Geoff Keey is the Strategic Adviser at Forest & Bird.