On June 6, after watching the transit of Venus from the newly restored Tolaga Bay wharf – the longest concrete wharf in the southern hemisphere, and “with the sweetest mussels” the locals say – I travelled to Tolaga Bay Area School, by the mouth of the Uawa River, and planted a koromiko. Around me, locals, Department of Conservation rangers, scientists and other visitors planted hundreds of ngaio, karo, flaxes, sedges and cabbage trees as part of an ecological restoration project that aims to restore the environment to how it was when James Cook arrived here in 1769.
Cook’s first landing in New Zealand in Turanganui, now sunny Gisborne, was marred by “violence and cross purposes”, says Dame Anne Salmond in the June 2012 issue of Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand (JRSNZ). In contrast, Cook’s stop at Uawa/Tolaga Bay, just up the coast from Gisborne, is now recognised as the first positive contact between Maori and Europeans. In a special issue of the JRSNZ that explores transit of Venus topics and the important place Uawa has in New Zealand’s history, Salmond describes the Uawa that Cook encountered as “a beautiful little cove sheltered from the wind, where a river ran down a steep valley into the ocean”.
At Uawa, scientists Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander spent many days “botanising and shooting birds”, says John Andrews in another article. As well as enjoying the hospitable welcome, Banks was impressed by the local “cultivations”, describing the gardens, including kumara beds, as being large and numerous and commenting on the relative affluence of the local people and the rich resources they harvested from the land, the river and the ocean. It’s still a beautiful place, but the vegetation has changed markedly from the time of Cook’s visit. Like many other parts of New Zealand, the original vegetation was cleared for pastoral farming, with substantial losses of indigenous biodiversity.
Today, the Uawa River is lined with weeds such as willow, Japanese honeysuckle and pampas. On the wide sandy riverbanks and on the ocean beach, enormous bleached logs – a mix of willow and slash from the radiata pine plantations that now cover 40% of the Uawa catchment – mark the high-tide mark. The June 6 planting event was part of an eco-restoration project, a collaboration between Te Aitanga-a-Hauiti, the local community and the Allan Wilson Centre for Molecular Ecology and Evolution, and part of a wider community-led initiative that covers the whole Uawa catchment and coast.
Environmental consultants Peter Handford and Clive Anstey have worked with the local community to prepare a draft riverbank restoration guide. In fenced ecorestoration projects like Zealandia and Maungatautari, the goal is restoration to a pristine state, with humans having tightly controlled visiting rights. Not so at Uawa, a predominantly Maori community of 830 people. Here, the restoration is not just about conserving the environment as a habitat for fish and bird species, but also about supporting sustainable cultural harvesting of species like harakeke, raupo and whitebait.
“Under the umbrella of conservation and biodiversity, a lot of energy goes into restoration but often without a long-term commitment,” says Handford. To prosper, such initiatives need to show a range of social and economic benefits, he says. In recognition of Uawa’s long history of gardening, the riverbank restoration guide doesn’t just cover native plantings, but acknowledges that on the river terraces, fruit trees and vegetable gardens can be a part of the vision, providing a way for “people to live directly from the natural resources of the area”. If this eco-restoration project is successful, and there’s every indication that it will be, it could be a model for small communities everywhere.
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