The recent debate about the sale of land to foreign investors has raised questions about what land means to us as New Zealanders. There’s been strong feeling, highlighting the passion that issues of ownership arouse and calling us to examine what it is that resonates so deeply about the hills and valleys of this rough-hewn land.
The varied landscape of this country shapes and defines us, sometimes inconveniently. We travel on slow, snaking roads, perch our homes upon steep sections, farm unyielding places. One city languishes in seismic uncertainty. Another amid 50 volcanic cones. Generations have struggled to make a living from wild places. For all that, New Zealanders are people for whom land matters, nourished by the beauty around them. Land and sea are never far below the surface of our national consciousness, emerging as a dominant metaphor in our art and music and literature.
Drained wetlands and ravaged forests notwithstanding, there’s a raw, regenerative quality to the landscape here. Even in our suburbs and cities, land and sea reach out and remind us of their presence. New Zealanders define themselves in the vividly felt memories of salt-stretched skin, walks on wild beaches, the poignant cry of a morepork across the night. Extraordinary gifts of nature have often been ours: the spray of a whale, the beat of a kereru’s wings, the solace of an afternoon spent among South Island hills. They’re experiences that have entered into us and arrested us, calling us back to the land as the place where we’ve stood most truly in our humanity.
Overseas travel highlights how lucky we are to exist in a place where the land still has such presence. In countries where thousands of years of intense cultivation has subdued the earth, the countryside seems tame, held quiet stone structures and human traffic, worked free of the restless power that still grips us here.
Te reo gives us words to speak of our special connection to the land. Natural treasures are taonga. It’s hard to define this word in English, forcing us to explore the concept, considering the dimensions of mutuality with nature. Instead of being pragmatic and reductionist, looking at the land as an economic proposition, or merely a space for recreation,
Maori tikanga introduces a emotional spiritual dimension, imbuing a sense of awe and inviting us to see national treasures, such as Aoraki, as splendid and sacred.
I remember seeing a super yacht in the deep waters of Port Fitzroy on Great Barrier Island. Rumoured to belong to the brother of the Sultan of Brunei, this floating palace bobbed at least two storeys above the waterline in the middle of the harbour. The boat’s guests were chauffeured to shore in a fancy inflatable—presumably to dine at a five-star resort, not to risk the sandflies of one of Fitzroy’s many magical coves. Of course, I can’t be sure what the owner’s experience of the island and its waters was really like, but it seemed to me diminished by the grandeur of his vessel and the many degrees of insulation between the man and the elements about him. More-ordinary families, anchored close enough to shore to see the pohutukawa flowers and jump into the achingly blue Barrier water, seemed to have a richer holiday experience.
When we consider lucrative offers for this desirable country, we can’t underplay how much our sense of nationhood is built on empathy with the whenua. We know that although it nourishes us, the land is fragile. When even well-intentioned New Zealanders know comparatively little about the ecological complexities on our doorsteps, it seems naïve to hope that foreign owners, with little kinship with this land and an emphasis on profit, will be satisfactory stewards. Scientists tell us how much rivers, and connecting ecosystems such as estuaries, suffer from the impacts of poorly managed farms. Stock trample to the edges, effluent and run-off pollute the water, and riparian deforestation means that fish and insects lack suitable habitat, reducing their chances of breeding and surviving.
It seems unlikely that the board of an overseas-owned business, reviewing farm management reports from a glass tower in a far-off land, will prioritise the interests of a tiny brown freshwater fish, or slow-breeding eels, or white-water-paddling blue ducks.
The bitter effects of dispossession are well known to New Zealanders. Multi-million dollar property deals may one day seem like a poor exchange compared with the rich legacy of turangawaewae, wherein we find ourselves and each other. What price can be put upon the places which empower and connect us?