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Manufacturing Content: Choosing the News

Kiribati has made an urgent appeal to the UN Security Council for help in combating climate change. Photo: Radio NZ

Kiribati has made an urgent appeal to the UN Security Council for help in combating climate change.
Photo: Radio NZ

Freya Mathews from La Trobe University in Australia, wrote a provocative opinion piece a few years ago – suggesting the news media “treats nature as a backdrop to the dramas and delights of human life.” Mathews suggests in the 21st century, human dramas are driving nature’s destruction, and that destruction threatens an end to our delights.

The environmental crisis unfolding all around us seems to be far less important to local, national and global news companies. On the same day that scientists publish a report in Nature journal revealing that even pasture-based beef is unsustainable, The Gisborne Herald reports on the national rugby team planned visit and a court case about a local man tricking boys into sending naked pictures of themselves. Other news about the global environmental disaster that didn’t rate a mention on the day included the link between mass migration from Africa to Europe driven by climate change, an estimate that inaction on climate change will cost US$44 trillion, and climate refugees plea for help from New Zealand.

Mathews recounts a similar story about news of unprecedented ocean acidification that is leading to complete breakdown in the marine ecosystems barely being noted between a shooting and a report on sports hooligans. “I was left in stunned disbelief at the way our news media are registering and representing the unfolding chronicle of our planet’s actual – no longer merely prospective – ecological collapse.”

Likewise, I wonder are we all completely mad? Are we more interested in a sports team visit and dirty young man than evidence of the unravelling of our primary industry and it’s contribution to the global climate crisis?

“Isn’t it time to examine the criteria of significance that guide the daily construction of “the news”? asks Mathews. “The news has, after all, assumed the status of supreme arbiter of significance in our society: almost everyone stops everything at least once a day to listen to the news. No other source of information currently enjoys such prestige and currency.”

But isn’t this prestige being squandered, if those responsible for the news focus generally on items of relative triviality while ignoring the literally earth-shattering changes that are occurring at an accelerating pace all around us? Images spring irresistibly to mind of people in the brightly lit lounges of the Titanic gossiping animatedly about scandals in politics and religion while around them the vast forces of nature are closing in.

Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (1988) by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky looked closely at the way the news industry constructs their product and who’s interests are being served. In the documentary by the same name, Chomsky is giving a lecture and touches on some of these issues:

“Sports — that’s another crucial example of the indoctrination system, in my view. For one thing because it offers people something to pay attention to that’s of no importance. That keeps them from worrying about things that matter to their lives that they might have some idea of doing something about. And in fact it’s striking to see the intelligence that’s used by ordinary people in [discussions of] sports [as opposed to political, environmental or social issues]. I mean, you listen to radio stations where people call in — they have the most exotic information and understanding about all kind of arcane issues. And the press undoubtedly does a lot with this.”

“Perhaps the newspapers that arose to express the assumptions of the industrial, pre-environmental era (mid-19th to late-20th century) are now merely relics of an age that has passed. And perhaps this is true of many other contemporary current affairs outlets as well, whether print or on-line. Most such publications and outlets carry over the 19th century assumption that the natural world, perennial and relatively unchanging, is mere backdrop to the sizzling dramas of human society. With this 19th century assumption goes the further assumption that what happens within the realm of nature is not our responsibility: nature looks after itself and we cannot intervene in its intricately ordered webs of eaters and eaten without upsetting the whole kit and caboodle.”

“Our media, still so inveterately old-fashioned despite the much-trumpeted technical revolutions in delivery, do not reflect this shift and are tragically failing to convey it” claims Mathews. “Instead they are creating the impression that items about the ecological collapse of the planet are on a par, in terms of moral significance, with everyday items about crime, celebrities, scandals, financial vicissitudes, trends in lifestyle.”

“Perhaps this is the deeper reason why our newspapers, and web sites based on them, are rapidly losing relevance. As they strive to cater more and more blatantly to what they imagine are the tastes of the market, they lose their entitlement to names like ‘guardian’, ‘leader’, ‘tribune’ or ‘courier’, let alone ‘herald’. They become instead mere ‘tattlers’, purveyors of tittle tattle, to which people instinctively pay little serious attention.

At the very least, the 19th century category of ‘the news’ needs to be thoroughly overhauled. Headlines need to be reserved for what matters most, and the truly earth-shattering developments that mark our “times” need to be properly ‘heralded’, not relegated to low-key, special-interest sub-spots uninvitingly labelled ‘science’ or ‘environment’ in the depths of labyrinthine web sites or in the back pages of old-style newspapers.”

DIY Decolonisation

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Nigel Brown “I am Pakeha”, 2008, oil on board

My good friend Dr Damian Skinner presented these reflections at a little conference on the Treaty of Waitangi yesterday. He doesn’t do social media but said I could share the text, I’m interested to see what others think about his suggestion we urgently need a Pākehā conversation…

Treaty on the Ground – Summary Notes by Dr Damian Skinner

I wanted to begin by talking about some of the connections I have professionally and personally with the TOW, as a way of identifying the various meanings of that phrase that have been circulating in this conference over the last two days.

When I work here at the Auckland War Memorial Museum, I am employed by an institution that is subject to an Act of Parliament that mentions the TOW. I brush up against formal policy documents like He Korahi Māori, which develop strategies for reflecting the TOW in the museum’s daily activities. I work in a context that has been shaped by a history of museums and cultural institutions grappling with the changing expectations of Māori when it comes to taonga, a history we might call the ‘Te Māori’ effect, and which is also affected by the principles articulated by the Waitangi Tribunal. I also think the TOW is present in more personal, less institutionally sanctioned experiences, like a twenty minute conversation I had near the start of my time here, with a Pākehā colleague, in bad te reo Māori, about whether the tūpuna in the Māori natural history galleries mind us taking food in sealed containers through their space, on our way to the staff room.

As an art historian working outside the Auckland Museum, I brush up against the TOW whenever I encounter and talk about the politicization of cultural dynamics, where claims about, for example, artistic designs and who owns them can’t be easily separated from claims to other resources, in part because of the Waitangi Tribunal process. And then there is the more direct impact of Tribunal report, especially the Wai 262 claim, which was brought up in the discussion yesterday. This came at the same time that I was thinking through the problems of writing a book about whare whakairo, meeting houses, and for me it crystalised the problem of academic ambitions divorced from communities and the descendants of the taonga I wanted to write about.

As a DIY promoter of Pākehā decolonization, I have a contract with the Gisborne Kindergarten Association to work with ECE teachers to address the question of how a Pākehā organization can serve Māori kids and their whānau – and exactly what a Pākehā organization (in a good, decolonized sense) might be. (No one really seems to know.) In this work, I encounter the TOW as an historical event, but more importantly as a history of thinking and negotiating between Māori and Pākehā, as a name for the principles that have been developed by the Waitangi Tribunal. These principles, and the history that sit behind them, act as a trigger to challenge Pākehā privilege. It is the mention of the TOW in various educational policies discussed by Te Kawehau Hoskins this morning, and in the formal documents of the Gisborne Kindergarten Association, that makes this a necessary process, even if not every Pākehā teacher initially sees its relevance or urgency.

Finally, at home, I can see the TOW at work in conversations about whether the kids are Māori and Pākehā, or Māori with Pākehā whakapapa (that one ended with a furious argument about blood quantum in US law); what it means to pursue decolonization in your domestic environment (don’t wash the tea towels with the undies); the necessity of Pākehā to support te reo Māori (still in decline, as Michael Dreaver noted); how local councils behave, and how they continue to actively resist the aspirations of Māori (there used to be a local body councillor); how ECE operates, and fails the needs of Māori children, and the difference between the kōhanga reo movement and puna reo movement (there is a Māori ECE teacher); how art history operates and art historians behave, and what it can possibly mean for a Pākehā art historian to say he is committed to the TOW and continue to write about Māori art (that’s me); and finally in all the endless tensions and domestic politics of a Pākehā living with a Māori whānau in a predominantly Māori community that, being mostly state housing for the labour requirements of the local freezing works and Wattie’s cannery, is a geographic and social reminder of the legacy of TOW breaches that, in a little over 50 years turned Māori land into Pākehā land. (It used to be called Tūranganui-a-Kiwa, and now it is called Gisborne.)

I would say all of these things come under the umbrella of the TOW. They make up the totality of what I mean when I say on my CV that I am committed to the Treaty, and to working out what it means to be a Pākehā partner in the Treaty process. I see many speakers over the last two days talking about an equally wide range of subjects; to tackle this diversity is exactly what we must mean when we say Treaty on the Ground. The TOW isn’t primarily, for me, a process of redress between the Crown and Māori for historical and contemporary breaches of the TOW, but rather it is a short hand for a decolonization process in which the task is to challenge the invisibility and power of Pākehā privilege. At first, when I realized this was a disconnect in this conference – there seemed too much focus on the TOW as a Crown thing, and not enough of what people were doing with it on the ground – I wondered if we shouldn’t discard the phrase TOW to get to these other dimensions. But after a lunch time discussion with my esteemed colleague on this panel, and another esteemed colleague at the Auckland Museum, I remembered that holding onto the idea of the TOW connects us to history – to a signing in 1840, but also to a history of breaches, of Pākehā behaving badly, of principles generated at a specific moment in time, from certain social and political conditions. And in turn this guarantees the urgency and irrevocability of the process. To decolonize successfully, Pākehā need two things: a patient Māori to explain how things really are, and a reason to look at history. The TOW brings both to the table.

I have really enjoyed the way in which this conference has evoked the texture of the period 1970 to 1990, as each speaker has contributed to the building up of a pattern of life that includes events, people, places and landscapes, language, ideas and values – even down to details of social life, such as what people wore, ate and did. The richness of this representation has been inspiring, and productive. To take a small personal example, Kim Workman’s comment that a spectacle of biculturalism led to the proliferation of Māori art in corporate foyers. I have written about some of these artists, but I have never identified the government’s shallow commitment to the baubles of biculturalism as one of the conditions of their practices.

But this also raises the question of Pākehā in this process, something that I think became spectacularly visible with Michael Dreaver’s talk – partly because suddenly there was an actual Pākehā to question (instead of a faceless entity called the Crown, or equally shadowy government Ministers), but also because I got to see a Pākehā practice, a Pākehā way of acting, a parallel to Māori ways of living the Treaty that have been discussed and presented over the last two days.

There isn’t a lot of room for Pākehā like me in the TOW if we’re talking a negotiation between the Crown and Māori. Obviously the Crown represents me, and the Crown’s actions have privileged me and my family. I believe that a big part of decolonization is linking your own history to the breaches of the TOW – tracking your personal connection to a process in which Aotearoa starts off as Māori land and ends up as New Zealand, a quarter-acre paradise for Pākehā. Overall, I have been struck by the lack of Pākehā actors in this conference. There are Māori, and there is the government. Māori initiated the challenge that disrupted settler indigeneity in the 1970s and 1980s, but some Pākehā have also, in different ways, lived a history of taking the TOW seriously, wrestling with its implications privately and publicly. I don’t think Pākehā can expect a pat on the head and a gold star for our contribution. There’s no A for effort here. But we need to find a way to challenge the idea that the TOW is a Māori issue, or the idea that biculturalism, its flawed and fascinating fruit, is a Māori problem. All the cultural institutions I’ve ever encountered are filled with Māori staff who run the cultural sensitivity training and who are responsible for articulating what biculturalism means. This just lets Pākehā off the hook. The Treaty on the Ground is going to require Pākehā to step up and shrug off the invisibility cloak of whiteness. As April Bennett said to a question from the audience this morning about Pākehā in all this, kia kaha e hoa mā. Go forth and gather together the resources that already exist, the people who are already committed, and start making a Pākehā conversation happen. As I was told once, around the dinner table, the biggest problem facing Māori is Pākehā. So what are we going to do about that?

Inside Out Resources

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I went to see the Disney/Pixar film Inside-Out with my nine year old son and his mates the other night.

I’ve made these little resources to help us explore some of the concepts in the film with our kids.

Let me know what you think.

Download: InsideOut Resources

Psychologist Nigel’s review of “Inside Out”:

Quite simply… it’s genius. This is, in my humble opinion, one of the cleverest things Disney Pixar have ever made. It’s funny, engaging, sad, joyful, intelligent, and loads of other things as well.

The psychologist in me found it utterly compelling because they’ve very cleverly taken some very complex stuff and made it accessible and engaging for a wide range of ages. The theories underpinning the movie are sound, but the genius is how they’ve taken all that somewhat dry research and turned it into such a fantastic storyIf you have kids who are having a struggle with something in their life, or have struggled with something, or may at some point in the future struggle with something, then this is a must see.

I took my 15 and 12 year old along, and they both enjoyed it. Indeed my 15 year old said that it would have been really helpful for him when he was a little guy struggling with moving town and changing schools and all that stuff.

If you can see this with your kids, you absolutely should. If you can’t afford to see it at the movies then wait till it’s released on DVD and see it then.

I’d predict this movie is going to achieve a special kind of status. It’s more than just a movie… it’s something else entirely.

This is, no contest, the best animated film I’ve ever seen. You’ll watch this with your kids, and then you’ll talk about their emotional life afterwards. Trust me, you will.

How amazing is that?

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Innovative Sexual Abuse Campaign Hailed a Success

Still from the campaign video produced by Gisborne film-maker Josh O'Neill

Still from the campaign video produced by Gisborne film-maker Josh O’Neill

A locally designed, produced and distributed sexual violence prevention campaign has been hailed a success based on feedback from a survey of Gisborne residents.

Te Ora Hou Te Tairāwhiti commissioned research in 2013 to identify local parents attitudes and activity around protecting their children from sexual violence. The findings from dozens of interviews and focus groups helped inform the design of a campaign across multiple media targeting local caregivers.

A series of radio advertisements, a websitesocial media resources and a provocative video produced by Gisborne film-maker Josh O’Neill were developed. The ads and video were used over six months to communicate key messages about knowing where children are, who they are with and how to talk to them about keeping safe. Nearly 20,000 Facebook users were reached with the video that has been played over 7,000 times – mostly by Gisborne residents.

A street survey of 100 random residents has been completed and the campaign developers are pleased with the findings.

Survey feedback was from a broad age range, with the largest group of respondents in the 30 something bracket. 62 respondents identified as Māori, 49 as European New Zealander, Pākehā or Kiwi, 11 as Pacific Islanders and four as Asian. Approximately three quarters of respondents were female.

Just over a quarter of respondents had seen the video online and 38% remembered hearing the radio ads. One in five had seen the campaign Facebook page and 15% had visited the campaign website.

For those that had seen or heard any of the campaign material (54/100 individuals), the campaign affirmed existing attitudes, beliefs and behaviours for about three quarters of respondents. 

A quarter of those who had seen or heard the campaign material said it motivated them enough that they raised the issues or a concerning situation with someone and the same number said they took action such as offering support to others or checking on a vulnerable child as a result of the campaign messages.

15% said their attitudes or beliefs about sexual abuse and neglect of children changed as a result of the campaign material.

Many respondents said they felt ‘angry’, ‘sad’, ‘sick’ and ‘afraid’ for the children in these situations after watching the video and hearing the ads. Some felt there needed to be much more sharing of similar messages:

“…so people are more aware and don’t sweep it under the carpet.” 

Many had personal experiences as victims or close friends and family who had been in similar situations:

“It made me relive my experience as a child.”

“I will be aware more for others and family as well around my future children.”

Other felt more determined to protect their children and others.

There was relief expressed that the message was being promoted on the airwaves and online:

“I feel relieved that there is now a source for public awareness.”

Some respondents shared ideas for getting the messages out further:

“Send information packs into the homes, fridge magnets. Get invites to marae meetings, school trustees meetings, just any area of the community that engage family. Big posters everywhere. Billboards maybe.”

“I think this is great and we need more ads of this sort. And more involvement from other child organisations also.”

“Hopefully this local campaign isn’t just a one off and it can be continued.”

A small number of respondents who had not seen the material were triggered by the video and were offered support and information on local helping services.

Project manager Manu Caddie said the survey sample was statistically significant and could be considered a snapshot of the wider population.

“That means more than 17,000 local adults have heard or seen the material and it has stuck with them enough to recall the messages” said Mr Caddie. “It means over 4,000 people are likely to have intervened in a situation to prevent sexual abuse or neglect as a direct result of this campaign.”

An economist commissioned in 2012 by Te Ora Hou to estimate the value for money in action to protect children found that preventing a single case of child abuse results in a saving of at least $20,000 to the public purse, let alone all the positive personal benefits for the child and their family of being spared the trauma and suffering of sexual violence and abuse.

“So even if only one per cent of the 4,000 people who did something as a result of the campaign actually prevented an incident of sexual violence or physical abuse, that’s a potential saving of $800,000.”

Mr Caddie said the campaign had been well supported by local media including The Gisborne Herald and iwi radio stations. He also paid tribute to former Gisborne woman and Te Ora Hou project manager Justine Crawford who led much of the campaign development work.

“A couple of radio stations are still running the ads after payment for them had finished because they know the message is so important” said Mr Caddie.

The Ministry of Social Development provided $38,000 in total for the initial research, local media campaign and evaluation with the proviso that if it was effective in Gisborne the material and approach may be used nationally.

“We think MSD has got real value for money and with the Cabinet paper leaked last week showing plans for a greater emphasis on child protection, we hope there are lessons learnt from this project that can be used in other communities.”

Mr Caddie said part of the motivation for the campaign was the paucity of information and social marketing targeting parents. “We know most children go in and out of extreme vulnerability at different stages in their early years, so any social marketing needs to reach the whole community and if we can prevent more violence and chronic neglect then we’ll have a safer, healthier community with less problems later in life.”

While the Budget last week announced significant increases in funding for the Childrens Teams, Mr Caddie said he is skeptical of continued emphasis on the child and family in isolation from their community. “It takes a village to raise a child and we think more resources need to be going into changing attitudes in behaviours within communities where vulnerable children live rather than pouring money into more professionals which is really ‘agency-centric’ rather than child, family or community centred.”

A report released last week by Treasury showed strong support for an approach to tackling difficult issues called Community-Led Development with less emphasis on paid professionals and more power given to residents in specific areas deciding what they will do to make the community safer and healthier for everyone.

“Whanau Ora has potential” said Mr Caddie, “but like Childrens Team’s, the new budget announcement sounds like the lion’s share of money will be going to employing more community-based social work positions working with individual families instead of seeing the community as the client.”

Te Ora Hou, established in the 1970s as a faith-based Māori community and youth development organisation, is involved with Community-Led Development projects in Whangarei, Gisborne, Hastings, Whanganui, Wellington and Christchurch.

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The Peter & Paul Budget 2015

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Mother of four, Kaiti resident and Community Animator, Annette Toupili being interviewed about Budget 2015 for One News on Cambridge Tce.

I probably wouldn’t have paid much attention to Budget 2015, but One News asked for some commentary for some reason, so I did have a look at the headlines and some of the detail. Of course government budgets are usually very short on detail – often the officials responsible have no idea what the politicians are thinking in an announcement so it takes quite a few weeks, sometimes months, before the specifics are made clear. The Budget largely seems like robbing Peter to pay Pauline. Cuts in some places, increases in others. I guess that’s what budgets usually do and governments are mostly in government to reprioritise the tax spend. I’ll start with the two highlights for me:

  1. Funding for Regional Research Institutes – probably a bit self-serving, but I like anything local and the idea that we could get a research institute established in Tairāwhiti is hugely appealing. I suspect such an entity would have a strong focus on environmental, economic and cultural development opportunities and activities. Our friends and colleagues Tui Aroha Warmenhoven and Pia Pohatu have been encouraged by Professor Linda T Smith to establish an internationally significant research entity on the Coast – and with co-investment from both central government and Eastland Community Trust I think we could create something quite exciting.
  2. Childcare Assistance rate for low income families will increase from $4 an hour to $5 an hour for up to 50 hours of childcare a week per child. This is good news as I know many whānau on low incomes have struggled with the limited support available to date – this is much better.

The most disappointing announcements:

  1. No announcement for anything designed to stimulate job development in provincial NZ. The is an announcement about offering multinational companies $1m to invest anywhere in NZ, but I doubt this is going to help Tairāwhiti at all.
  2. Establishing a $3,000 WINZ incentive for beneficiaries to relocate to other regions around NZ. This won’t help Gisborne at all, it will just take more whānau who want to be here away to other places – increasing urbanisation and gutting the provinces further.
  3. Cutting the $1000 kickstarter for Kiwisaver – I’m glad I signed up our kids but taking away the incentive for others to start saving might save $500million now but what’s the longterm implications when even fewer people have retirement savings in 50 years time?

An extra $25 a week after tax more in benefit for families with children is helpful, the first real benefit increase since I was born. The $12.50 before tax per week extra Working for Families for families not on benefit but earning $36,000 pa or less is not significant enough to be helpful. Some very low income families will get $24.50 extra a week, gee thanks. Most sole parents and partners of beneficiaries will have to be available for part time work once their youngest child turns three, rather than 5 years old as it is now – and all beneficiaries with part time work obligations will be expected to find work for 20 hours a week, rather than 15 hours as now. Not much use if there is no work but you have to prove you’re trying hard to find it. Student Allowance rates for families with children will increase $25 a week – nice but long overdue and not particularly significant.  Beneficiaries receiving Sole Parent Support will have to reapply for their benefit every year as people receiving JobSeeker support already do. I’m not sure what the rationale for that is.  $8 million to help vulnerable students participate more in education or training and lift achievement – sounds impressive but won’t go very far across the country. More funding for CYF could probably have been used better by communities being empowered to care for ourselves instead of handing child protection over to the professionals. Likewise the big funding going into Children’s Teams is quite misdirected in my humble opinion – the community should be the client rather than an individual child – seems we haven’t learnt much since the Family Homes of the 70s. More money for the military. No need to comment. The child poverty campaigns seem not totally scathing of the Budget initiatives but not hugely excited either. Will be interesting to see others reactions – seems a mixed bag with a few surprises – like the tourist tax increase – but nothing that’s really going to change much of significance?

Mixed Fortunes

Sunrise in the windows of an 100 year old building in Tokomaru Bay on the morning the Mixed Fortunes report was released. #metaphor

Sunrise in the windows of an 100 year old building in Tokomaru Bay on the morning the Mixed Fortunes report was released. #metaphor

Community leaders scrambling to defend the region in light of the Salvation Army report yesterday was understandable but a bit disappointing.

I’m not sure why anyone was surprised that Northland and Gisborne top the country for all the worst statistics – it’s been that way for a few generations now. Shooting the messenger – before even reading the message – shows both a lack of confidence in the region and credibility as a commentator.

If we look behind the numbers in the report it is completely understandable that Gisborne stands out – we have a very low population compared to other regions and lower average income and higher Māori population. Wellington, Auckland and even Tauranga have communities facing similar challenges to Gisborne but their regional statistics look better because they have higher proportions of the community with higher incomes and there are more employment opportunities in big centres. Māori are still recovering from the impacts of colonisation and it will take some time and better efforts from everyone before Māori health, justice, education and employment statistics are equal with the rest of the population.

Urban migration from rural communities to metropolitan centres is a global phenomenon as small family farms become marginal in the face of industrialised agri-business. Increasing profits by using machines instead of more costly human labour has been the point of business since the industrial revolution. And we wonder why we have an unemployment problem?

I think the report is really helpful and we should be thanking the Salvation Army for helping draw attention to the issues again.

A local yesterday said “the Salvation Army doesn’t know Gisborne”, those kinds of comments show that there are people in Gisborne who don’t really know Gisborne.

I was pleased to hear a couple of councillors have invited the report author to come to Gisborne for a discussion about the report findings and recommendations.

The recommendation to develop national sustainability goals to ensure the progress of all regions should also be taken up at a local level. Unfortunately there seems to be little sense of urgency within the local institutions that have the mandate and resources to influence significant change:

  • Gisborne District Council continues to excuse itself from any meaningful leadership in terms of truly sustainable development. Other councils have at least developed useful regional progress measures that help identify where more attention and resources are required to affect meaningful change.
  • Tairawhiti District Health Board seems to understand some of the issues but is hamstrung by central government priorities, high salaries for some medical staff and limited funds having to stretch further each year.
  • Eastland Community Trust and iwi authorities have limited mandates and capabilities at present but they do have ambitious vision, significant capital and opportunities to marshal additional support.
  • Activate Tairawhiti has a big mandate but no resources to do anything other than organise meetings.
  • Local offices of central government agencies are driven by their bosses in Wellington rather than local priorities.

Likewise we need a local plan to meet the challenges of an aging population, resource scarcity and rising inequality in our region. Accelerating the adoption of new technologies and social arrangements, could help but those arrangements may also require understanding our situation differently. For example the official deprivation levels in Kaiti and Ruatoria are the same but the issues are quite different – on the Coast access to quality health services may be a big challenge but families don’t need to earn a lot when they depend less on the supermarket and more on the land and sea to source food. For example, should public policy encourage more families to return to small farming?

So let’s welcome this useful piece of research, thank the authors and take the time as a community to fully appreciate the reality of the opportunities available to us as a region.

Tapuwaeroa, Ruatoria

Where did all the farmers go? Or how much useful energy is stored in human belly fat?

In his 1979 essay “Energy in Agriculture” the American farmer, author and activist (some say prophet) Wendell Berry reflects on a memoir by Donald Hall of life on his grandparents’ New England farm from the 1930s to the 1950s.

The farm produced food for the household and made a cash income from a small hand-milked herd of Holsteins (Fresians) and a flock of sheep. It had trees for firewood and mayple syrup. Sales of wood paid for the girls to go to school and while the farm and family were ‘poor’ by modern standards with only a small income, they also only spent a small amount. Its energy economy was largely independent of its money economy. The energy of this farm came largely from people and from one horse. This farm was based on patterns of agriculture that have been extinguished by the methods of industrial agriculture and modern capitalism. Farms like the Hall’s gave way to assumptions of “progress” that privileged the city over the country, the large-scale over the small, uniformity over diversity.

Profound in my context was Berry’s brief history lesson about urbanisation. Trends in the US rural drift to the cities have been mirrored in Aotearoa New Zealand, nowhere more so than the East Coast. One of Berry’s main points is that as ‘agribusiness’ grew in the 20th Century it favoured land that was easy for large, mechanised tools of production to access – namely large, flat to easy country so while small-holdings both in New England and around Ruatoria had been successfully cultivated for hundreds of years, new technology meant the small family farm could not compete with the industrial agriculture of large companies that bought or leased massive tracts of land in other parts of the country.

Rural communities that had been largely self-sufficient quickly emptied as families could no longer find work – either because farms in the area had been bought or leased to corporations and the production had been taken over by machines, or because the modest cash income – that had supplemented food grown by the household for itself – had dried up when cheaper produce was sourced from larger farms.

Apirana Ngata as Minister of Native Affairs encouraged the wholesale clearance of native bush on the East Coast and other parts of New Zealand still occupied by Māori for conversion to small scale dairy farms.

Apirana Ngata as Minister of Native Affairs encouraged the wholesale clearance of native bush on the East Coast and other parts of New Zealand still occupied by Māori for conversion to small scale dairy farms.

Uncle Tui Tibble was born in the 1930s and remembers dozens of small dairy herds being milked daily in the 10km between Makarika and Ruatoria. Likewise Aunty Patricia, born in 1940, spent her years before going to boarding school milking cows with her nanny on the East Cape. Her secondary schooling was largely paid for by the income from the cows.

Those were the days when local families would milk between 30 and 100 cows every morning, put the full containers out at the gate for collection and receive a ‘cream cheque’ each fortnight. Most of that cream went to the Butter Factory in Ruatoria.

Ruatōria was well-known for its Ngāti-Porou Co-operative Dairy Company, and the Nāti-branded butter its factory produced won the national award for the best butter for several years in succession. The cooperative was a predominantly Māori venture and the financing, which included buying herds for intending suppliers, was distinctive. It began in the 1925–26 season with 58 suppliers and an output of 61 tons of butter; within 10 years it had 377 suppliers and an output of 743 tons. The company featured in the 28 May 1952 issue of The Weekly News. The article said:

’It is staffed and managed entirely by Maoris, and 90 percent of its cream supply comes from farms under Maori ownership or management.’

Ngati-Porou Co-operative Dairy Co. Ltd. factory, Factory Rd, Ruatoria, 2015

Ngati-Porou Co-operative Dairy Co. Ltd. factory, Factory Rd, Ruatoria, 2015

The building still stands, but with a declining milk supply the factory itself closed in 1954. The factory closure didn’t come because the cows went dry, it wasn’t the impact of a prolonged drought or a milk powder contamination scare. It was in fact the intersection of two massive social shifts – urbanisation and large-scale industrialisation of the agricultural sector. The post-war baby boomers were the first generation of ‘consumers’, production shifted away from small family farms and at the same time people shifted away from farms. Before the Second World War 80% of Māori lived in rural communities, the 2013 Census found that over 80% of Māori now live in urban centres. In fact the War was largely responsible for taking men (and women) not only into active service but to work in city factories supporting the war effort.

This graph shows the increase in the percentage of Māori living in urban areas between 1926 and 1986. The rate of urban migration was particularly rapid after the Second World War. Source: Te Ara Encyclopedia of NZ

The increase in the percentage of Māori living in urban areas between 1926 and 1986. Source: Te Ara Encyclopedia of NZ

With a booming population and increasing ‘prosperity’ in the post-war years, Māori and Pākehā expectations and aspirations changed – higher education, increased mobility and expanded choices were the basis for massive relocations into cities over the next few decades.

Berry explains it this way:

…something was gaining speed in our country that I think will seem more and more strange as time goes on. This was a curious set of assumptions, both personal and public about ‘progress’. If you could get into a profession, it was assumed, then of course you must not be a farmer; if you could move to the city, then you must not stay in the country; if you could farm more profitably in the corn belt [Poverty Bay flats, Canterbury Plains, Pukekohe], then the moutainsides of New England [East Coast] must not be farmed. For years this set of assumptions was rarely spoken and more rarely questioned, and yet it has been one of the most powerful social forces at work in this country [and around the world] in modern times.

and Berry argues it was made possible by the myth of cheap energy:

But these assumptions could not accomplish much on their own. What gave them power, and made them able finally to dominate and reshape our society, was the growth of technology for the production and use of fossil fuel energy. This energy could be made available to empower such unprecedented social change because it was “cheap.” But we were able to consider it “cheap” only by a kind of moral simplicity: the assumption that we had a “right” to as much of it as we could use. This was a “right” made solely by might. Because fossil fuels, however abundant they once were, were nevertheless limited in quantity and not renewable, they obviously did not “belong” to one generation more than another. We ignored the claims of posterity simply because we could, the living being stronger than the unborn, and so worked the “miracle” of industrial progress by the theft of energy from (among others) our children.

Berry argues, not only did the cultural values of society shift along with more ‘metropolitan’ tastes and consumption habits increasingly dependent on manufactured food, but more importantly the shifts were a logical consequence of ‘marginal’ farms in New England – and the East Coast of Aotearoa New Zealand – being abandoned – not because they were unproductive or undesirable as living places.

They were given up for one very “practical” reason: they did not lend themselves readinly to exploitation by fossil fuel technology… Industrial agriculture needs large, level fields. As the scale of technology grows, the small farms with small or steep fields are pushed farther and farther toward the economic margins and are finally abandoned…

Today we find ourselves in a situation where thousands of hectares of land on the East Coast and other parts of the country that were once highly ‘productive’ as family farms are now lying fallow, gathering millions in rates debt. While some estimates classifying up to 80% of Māori land as ‘under-performing’ or ‘unproductive’ may be exaggerated, and the benefits of ‘undeveloped’ land may turn out to be quite profitable, and whether or not law reform is required to address the complexities of tenure and management, the fact remains that Māori land in our community is rarely being utilised like it was to enable whānau to grow their own food and derive some modest income from what can be sold, swapped or given away.

Tapuaeroa, Ruatoria

Tapuaeroa, Ruatoria

Berry laments the massive waste associated with the modern ‘efficient’ agricultural methods. There is the waste of solar energy that farming has depended on for millennia – both as a motive power and as a growing power; the waste of animal energy – particularly when animals are confined and feed has to be transported to them; the waste of soil and soil health as massive agricultural machinery compresses the soil and sees it blown as dust or be drained away during rain because it is more ‘efficient’ to leave large areas exposed between crops. But possibly the biggest waste is that of human energy and ability:

Industrial agriculture replaces people with machines; the ability of millions of people (maybe tens of thousands in Aotearoa New Zealand) to become skillful and to do work therefore comes to nothing. We now have millions (tens of thousands) on some kind of government support, grown useless and helpless, while our country becomes unhealthy and ugly for want of human work and care. And we have additional millions (hundreds of thousands) not on welfare who grown equally useless and helpless for want of health. How much potential useful energy do we now have stored in human belly fat? And is it costing us, not only in medical bills, but in money spent on diets, drugs and exercise machines?

A pretty harsh analysis and probably won’t go down well with the liberals, but it resonates with many of us who might even have grown up on or close to small farms but have lost the knowledge, skills and motivation to fend for ourselves, kill our own meat and grow our own fruit and vegetables… and have grown accustomed to an unhealthy way of life so different to that of Uncle Tui’s childhood or Donald Hill’s grandparents.

Makarika Valley

Makarika Valley

Of course it is easy to romanticise the ‘good old days’ and living off the land when actually there’s very little that is glamorous or easy about it. Our friends and neighbours who live ‘closer to the land’ than we do at present struggle with the challenge of the workload of growing your own – as Hirini Kaa‘s grandfather said in his diary: ‘Kumara is such hard work every day except Christmas, Easter and Sunday mornings.” A poor season and smallharvest can mean a very lean winter, living off the grid can mean cold nights, constant illness and modest incomes can mean insecure land tenure and investing everything in land that is whipped away by those who can take it… all the trappings of the ‘simple life’ that our ‘easy life’ is setup to avoid at all costs.

Still, a small and determined group of hardy souls have kept the faith and whether it was pacifist religious communities after the war, hippy communes and intentional communities through the 70s, the NZ Small Farmers Association that my father Graham Caddie was briefly President of in the late 80s, more recent Catholic Worker farms in the Hokianga, Kapiti Coast and Central Hawkes Bay or stubborn whānau who simply refuse to leave their whenua and have continued to farm the blocks handed down to them – authentic examples have been quietly growing about their business while the rest of society chases the Kiwi Dream- however that is defined in these days of three quarters of a million dollars average house prices.

Te Ao Hou Marae, Tikitiki/Rangitukia

Te Ao Hou Marae, Tikitiki/Rangitukia

Moving rural this year, back to Tarsh’s marae at Makarika just south of Ruatoria was largely motivated by a cultural imperative around the retention and revitalisation of Te Reo Māori for our children and ourselves, but it seems to be increasingly offering a much wider range of opportunities to deepen our relationship with each other and the rest of Creation in a surprisingly spiritual encounter with the whenua, our collective histories and potential futures as Berry again articulated so much of so well in a recent article last month.

It feels like new beginnings for our family in so many ways – and while there’s nothing romantic about killing field mice that are just trying to shelter from the cold on a frosty morning – there is so much beauty all around us, so much potential to live in a more balanced way with the world around and inside us, and so much opportunity to have fun while making mistakes and growing together. It’s a bit scary but all exciting journeys should be.