Sunday, November 28, 2010

the conversion aversion

A few days spent driving around Southland is a sobering experience. It is one of the regions of New Zealand with the most of its natural character left intact. So perhaps in that case the cavalier attitude to the land probably makes more sense. Even so, it’s a dismal shame the rate that the wetlands in particular of the south seem to falling prey to land use change.
A major proponent of this change is the dairy industry. Dairy conversions are taking place all over the region, and those nearby. The media has been rife with reports on this phenomenon. Most reports and concerns however have centred on their need for high amounts of water, promoting such ventures as the crop circle irrigation debacle in the Mackenzie Basin.
But the effects of a dairy conversion are far reaching and most of their impacts are insidious, yet poorly understood. Dairy is a far more intensive land use than most other livestock-based farming. The cows and the milking operation generally require more inputs than comparable land uses (sheep and beef farming) in the way of infrastructure (under-road culverts, irrigators and dams, milking sheds or storage and transport facilities, stand out areas).
Whatever the reason, the pressure or greed that drives the intensification process leads to every square inch of pasture created that can possibly be created. Streams, wetlands, sinks, and other natural land forms all get bowled by the diggers until the postage stamps of green are laid side by side for kilometre upon kilometre. The justifications include, as I have read, the need to pipe streams to ‘stop the cows going in them’ (the word is ‘fence’!). I am sure there are good examples of dairy farming conversions somewhere, but they would not appear to be the norm.
And then once the dairy conversion is complete, often the owner is on the edge of financial ruin (many people appear to have borrowed near on 100% of the capital required to purchase and convert the land). Best-practice land management barely seems to get a look in as the focus goes on recouping and repaying for likely decades to come.
What streams remain are rarely fenced, much less planted out. The wetland margins are strewn with gorse and suspicious drainage activity invades most margins. The drains typically have cows lolling in them or near them and the effluent no doubt makes the water quality results (if they’re taken) make your eyes water. The need to forever increase the stocking rates seems to truncate innovation for the bulk of the newly converted and the environment wears the consequences.
It’s rather like being in a time machine...we just don’t learn....

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

exciting excrement

It was the strangest thing...I had wandered off from the group (well, no, that isnt at all strange actually) and sauntered down to the viewing platform. I was at Tairua Heads Royal Albatross Centre, an amazing facility just out of Dunedin. The foresight of Richdale in decades long passed had seen an incredible conservation programme based on the albatross, the penguins and other coastal avian gems sustained. The viewing platform gave you an excellent perspective on the wild coastal cliffs of the Peninsula.

Royal Spoonbill (they're all royal here dahling) stalked the kelp strewn foreshore. Spotted Shags lolled on ledges above and red billed gulls flapped noisily around your head. Their colony nearby was all rackets and guano streaks, but it was nice to see them so numerous.

Anyways....the strange thing was seeing the coastal cliffs alive with activity. The powerful wind blew the most unholy smell up your nostrils. You had a sense of nature being in utter control. And it I put my beloved binoculars to my eyes and was suddenly splattered with a not insignificant amount of gull poop.

My new conference t-shirt, thermal undershirt, treasured cap from an Indian NGO and my binocular case all become gooey victims of the gulls unceremonious deposit. Fearing reeking of digested fish for the remainder of the lengthy field trip I quietly purchased half a new garb from the tourist shop and carefully stowed the soiled clothing in a sealed plastic bag.

Some of my more observant fellow conference participants noticed my freshly bared head (hat hair = HATE) and shiny new jacket in no time and reassured me that getting crapped on by a threatened species is actually amazingly good luck. Good...I was worried it was an indicator that my love of ornithology is profoundly misplaced. If you add to that the knowledge that seabird guano deposits are a historically rare ecosystem, then you see why I am feeling positively special....

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

....the long arm of the irrigator

I drove from Christchurch to Dunedin today; 630 kilometres via the Mackenzie Basin. It was a phenomenally long drive for me, and makes me think that I will be planting trees for the rest of my natural life to offset it. Nevertheless, it was a gorgeous drive, but not without it's shocks.

The irrigation of the Mackenzie has been in the news a lot of late, so it was important to me to see it first hand. The media furore had centred around the widespread installation of irrigation systems, largely to provide for the conversion of existing pastoral land into dairy farming.

Dairying is a resource-intensive farming operation, particularly relative to other types of farming such as sheep and beef. The Mackenzie by its very nature is a naturally dry basin and extensive canal and dam construction of past decades is being progressively added to with much much more waiting in the wings.

Seeing the lurid swathes of green cloaking otherwise dry hillslopes was a strange sight (would fit comfortably in any urban readylawn suburb) and I am certain it would fail any gateway test on sustainability of agricultural practice. And yet it proceeds as the bottom falls out of the merino market and milk suddenly looks a lot more tasty. The freezing cold in winter makes the climate terribly inhospitable for the poor milking cows, so the logical next step is to propose that they be kept indoors....another animal rights minefield.

So...lets review....we started farming an dryland environment; it came as a surprise that water was at a premium; so we chopped and screwed the hydrology to devise a complex array of lakes, canals and dams; then we now shift to one of the most resource-intensive land uses which requires even more water that transforms the landscape into a bizarre patchwork of stark green circles on a basis of cracked and spiky earth...and each move is justified by the bad call at the last intersection...

Incrementally, more water rights will be handed over and more and more arms of irrigators will sweep across the sky. Irrigation in itself is not bad, sometimes land needs a bit of help in the dry, but some such irrigators must run almost year round to make this area vaguely suitable for Daisy and her pals. And it makes you realise that managing the environment well has no silver bullet associated with it, that it does not come about as one big decision or a series of large policy calls.

Managing the environment well is the combination of thousands of small decisions made by individuals, companies, communities and regulatory agencies...each one providing a ramp for the next by setting the parameters and precedents....we need to think critically at each and every stage and make decisions that reflect where we want to be not where we are....

Monday, November 15, 2010

shaken, not stirred

Has been a less-than-thrilling few days in Christchurch. Having managed to coincide with a weekend, a public holiday and a migraine I haven't made too much progress other than to see a little bit of the countryside, visit a couple of sites and experience the aftershocks of the Canterbury quake.

Shallow and in the late fours on the Richter scale they have both provided a bit of a wake-up call and a reminder of the fragility of human settlements. You drive around the streets of Christchurch and lots of things have a tarp on or bricks around it. A church sits beside it's steeple down the road...the spire obviously having been carefully craned off the rambling old building as it began to buckle.

You walk past some neighbourhoods and its hard to think that such a large quake rumbled through just a few weeks ago. And then you come across an expanse of bare land where one of the older buildings stood and were demolished, beyond repair.

Lots of streets are blocked off as areas of road are rejigged, stablised and resurfaced. Whole street corners lie bare, their fate unknown. Waiting lists for building inspections are in the months, not days or weeks.But despite all this, life goes on.Strong building laws have built a city of fairly solid abodes and low population density meant almost no injuries and not a single casualty. A smooth-running relief effort diminished the stress and grief at the time and sped the city faster to recovery and normalisation.

It's amazing to put the quake in perspective, not withstanding that the Richter is hardly a totally reliable indicator. The magnitude of the quake was not dissimilar from that that devastated Haiti (the after effects of which are just as horrific), It was substantially larger than the massively damaging Newcastle Quake of 1989 I was in, in which 13 people died. 160 people were injured and some sites still lay vacant over two decades on.

So its nice to see Christchurch the way it is...battered but not out. This is resilience...and we're lucky

Thursday, November 11, 2010

...the missing link

I have now passed the half way mark of my field work, with about a month to go. I am in much less familiar territory now and have had some negative experiences in one or two councils in recent days that have been frustrating. An experience of having a very unhelpful council, with a very fractious relationship with their community and almost total non compliance in the cross section of consents has left me with rather strong tendencies towards the thankfully wider array of wine than is available in most regions....

I have read some detailed environnment court cases and consents lately. Some have seen over $100 000 spent on figuring out appropriate environmental controls and requirements. The outcomes are often random, and one can't help that think those involved lost sight of the long term view a long time ago. That being whether we genuinely do intend to sustainably manage our natural and physical resources, or whether we'd rather just fanny about the edges and tick a box.

What lies between law and the environment are people. And people are not rational beings...and no matter how linear the law and how precious the environment, the decisions are political and twisted, chopped and screwed to meet ends that sit outside the purpose and principles of the act. And the middlemen are everywhere.

They are the guys that sit in inflated bureaucracies in south-east Asia collecting bribes for sandalwood and tiger paws; the politcians who take the kick-backs from the illegal mining operations by overseas monkeys in vulnerable communities of Indonesia and PNG; and they are the planners here that fail to understand their purpose.

They arent meant to be there to bully applicants and throw the book at them. Neither are they there to be mates with everyone, even the prize lunatic tearing around his farm filling in streams and spraying god knows what everywhere. They are there to fairly administer a set of rules, keeping in mind their spirit and intent.

If theres anything I have learned over the past few weeks, it is that people make all the difference. The individual small choices made by applicants, offenders, planners, commissioners, submitters, politicians and everyone else who has a stake in the environment (which IS everyone else) matter more that technical solutions, law reviews and policy frameworks that we spend so much money and time on.

You start with a give them a lawbook....they are still a muppet, they're just holding a lawbook...

Not sure how to fix that....

Sunday, November 7, 2010

the absurdity of sameness

In the past month or more that I have been tripping around New Zealand I have visited around 20 towns, and driven through dozens more. New Zealand towns are all go through a 70kmh zone before slowing to 50kmh past the Lions and Rotary signs and whatever garish entity is the soul of the town (a kiwifruit picking pukeko or some such lovable mascot).

A four square or dairy is the hub of the town and the petrol station is getting just a bit glitzy if it's open past 7pm. A smatter of odd shops toddle down the main street and the odd side street leads to the mechanics thats been run by the same family for generations. There's comfort in the predictability but enough variation to give each town a quietly distinctive character. Of all the towns I have been to thus far, the unique and special mainstreet of Takaka has now become the benchmark. What a funky town...may well have been the inspiration for that song...

The town doesn't have a sprawling big box retail development on the outskirts....that acts as a magnet to commerce, annihilating the heart of the township. The Pagani/Starbucks/Flight Centre/Muffin Break/Countdown/$2 Shop/Whitcoulls splatter is all a bit painful when you can stand in the centre of it and quite literally be anywhere in the country.

What it means is that if this trend continues of such cookie-cutter commerce worming its way into enclaves of development under the banner of 'progress', and small communities dont resist the tentacles of the Westfield empire then we may as well all stay home. No need to travel anywhere because they all look the same anyway. It's like the most perverse form of relocalisation and strikes you as the planning equivalent of Groundhog Day. Twenty times over I have driven in to the same place....its surreal...resist the scourge...

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

...the good life in the top of the bottom

My only time in the South Island to date has been a few days in Christchurch some years back for a brief conference. One of the great perks of my research road trip is that I get to see the bottom half of our stunning country and I have not been disappointed so far. It's been an intense couple of days since arriving in Nelson but I am in love with the landscape.

The towering snow capped mountains are in full view as you wander along the warm beaches and some of the most amazing of our National Parks are within easy driving distance. The weather has been immaculate since arrival and promises to remain so for at least a few more days. I'm thrilled about that considering my weekend in Motueka will hopefully include a not-insignificant amount of twitching at Farewell Spit, a premier birding locations for feather fans like myself :)

I have now settled in to the roadtrip/rockstar lifestyle. I think the boredom and fatigue of the first couple of weeks was due to familiarity of surroundings. Now that I am spending all my days glued to a map like any other of the scores of tourists I am happy. I enjoy being lost and unfamiliar. My biggest concern is the readjustment to the gentle lifestyle of the Hamilton student when all this is over...two years of analysis and writeup awaits which will be a rather less riveting way to spend one's time.

In saying that, it's likely that I will think differently as the weeks pass by and Christmas draws near. I dare say that by the time I clock ten weeks away from home I will be looking forward to my own bed like any normal person. I miss my kitchen too as cooking is a favourite hobby, and the freedom to cook without swarms of 2-minute-noodle-loving gypsies like me tripping over me and each other is much missed. In saying that, I spent this evening enjoying wood-fired veggie pizza and locally brewed lager at the funky pub over the you know, there's ways around any problem ;-)