As some of you know I was recently back to my first home of New Zealand to visit my family. I love the opportunity whenever home to visit virgin forest areas, simply referred to as as ‘bush’ by New Zealanders. It’s what I find most special about my country from a perspective of now living in a Ireland that has long lost its native forests (only remnants remain).
While New Zealand has been described as the ‘last, the lovelist and lonelist’ country in the world, much of what is promoted by the NZ tourist board commercials hides the unacknowledged story of the almost complete deforestation of its vast virgin forests, that occurred mostly by European settlers, in only the last 150 years.
While visitors may marvel at the extent of its new protected World Heritage forests areas (a status only conferred in the last 10 years mind you), only a quarter of the original and very unique New Zealand forests remain, and most of the lowland forests have gone! This was not something that I knew much about while living there – it’s easy for most in New Zealanders to take all its natural resources as being unlimited for a country the size of Britain with only a population of 4 million. But its also a shocking example of how deforestation can occur so quickly and be relegated into the background of a ‘developing’ country (unfortunately it’s a continuing global story too, with profound effects for the world’s climate, its poorest nations & biodiversity).
The early settlers (mostly from Britain and Ireland) of New Zealand , colonising the land for the British Empire, came at a time when the most favoured means of creating economic wealth was from farming. Farming was king and the early settlers knew no
other means to live in what was a very strange, wet and deeply forested land. This was the only life my great grandparents knew and early settlers came with great hopes for having their own farms like back home. They changed the landscape so very quickly into what is now a country of grass ! Today 51% of the land in NZ is covered by introduced grass species!
Most of New Zealand forests were felled once-off for their amazingly unique timbers or burnt quickly to make way for 50+ million sheep (and a lot of cattle)! Don’t forget at that time Britain had long lost its knowledge and culture of perserving forests for more sustainable living. To picture this mindset, I am very fortunate to have watercolours by my great grandmother, Annie Cowie (nee Cowper). You can see how they cleared the ‘bush or scrub’ (they didn’t recognise it as forest) into sheep pasture (notice the white-picket fence and my Gt. Grannie paints herself in in a long white dress, she was the first white woman in this area – I can’t imagine the hardship, or the loneliness -ironically they later had to abandoned their farm as this area was unsuitable for farming sheep !)
The story of ‘country by country desforestation’ or what you might call the Age of Stupid, has been a result of the lack of widespread basic education of what really sustains all our local economies and environments. Deforestation is part of the story of ‘progress’ which relies on the mistaken belief that the earth has unlimited resources. Yet, there has always been people who noticed the loss but they have always been too few in number or labelled as ‘dreamers/radicals’ to counter these mainstream beliefs.
Is anything changing?? To my mind I agree with others that it was an photograph of Earth taken exactly 40 years ago from space that heralds the beginning modern environmental consciousness of the reality of our very fragile and singular planet. However the enviromental movement hasn’t been very effective in changing attitudes – shockingly, it is estimated that to continue the West’s ‘story of progress’, we need 2-5 more earths, right now!!
Even so I feel there is a growing groundswell for a new understanding… I hope there’s time left to learn again. I was inspired when I got home to see on TED (an online community pf presentations of the world’s best thinkers, environmentalists, artists) Willie Smitts groundbreaking and extensive rainforest reforestation work in Indonesia, see my last post (and in the last week the launch of a related site that is aiming to get support for, get this, reforesting 250 million acres of rainforest! see http://replantingtherainforests.org/site/ ).
I also came across adverts (and comments from my blog readers) about a new film, made by 2 young woman film-makers – called ‘The Age of Stupid’. How inspiring to see these 2 young women film-makers further defining & developing how we can all engage and communicate ecological issues. In their film content they are extending the power of such films by using real people’s stories filled with emotion to engage us about climate change, extending beyond the range of the more factual Inconvient Truth. And they have been innovative apart from making the film by also successfully changing how such films can be self-financed and maintain their own distribution rights. Couplingd the film through social media also means that such messages are connecting us all; be it the general public, the media and our politicians. The premiere will be launched online TODAY, 7pm GMT,15 March 2009. Already in the Guiness Book of Records as the biggest simultaneous audience for a film premiere, it will be focussing audiences on the importance of this year’s UN climate summit in Copenhagen this December. I’m going to be watching Age of Stupid online with friends, hope you will watch along too!
Acknowledgments to this piece:
Quite a lot of the stats in this article I gathered from a great free exhibition currently on in New Zealand’s museum, Te Papa; Blood Earth Fire’ -experience the dramatic transformation of Aeotearo NZ‘
A lot of debate concerns deforestation prior to European settlers arriving; Maori are known to have burnt areas for growing their crops but the extent of deforestion cannot compare to the extent cleared by EU settlers – Maori legends of Tane, God of the Forests and Birds tend to suggest some reverence for the forests. Foresters with a geological bent also tend to point out that natural forest fires and wind were probably more responsible for changes in vegetation in areas deforested before NZ settlers arrived, see ‘Hawkes Bay Forests of Yesterday’ by the forester, PJ Grant
NZ has been claimed to be pioneering a Carbon Emissions Trading scheme in particular for forestry and creating carbon forest sinks. However, a recent Greenpeace NZ’s article shows however a basic lack of acceptance of climate change with NZ’s new government leader, suggesting that under all the spin, there is a lot more to do before NZ turns up in Copenhagen this December!