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Letters from New Zealand – Koanga Sows Seeds of Change

Current evidence indicates that New Zealand may well be "the youngest country on earth". Possible fellow competitors for this claim are Greenland, Iceland and Madagascar. All of these landscapes were so isolated they managed to avoid human settlement until relatively recent times. But these entrants in the competition look to be a couple of centuries behind — all being settled prior to 1000AD, unlike New Zealand, which is believed to have had no human presence prior to 1200AD.

With campaigns and videos like the one at top, New Zealand has managed to generate a kind of green aura around itself. Stunning Lord of the Rings landscapes, pristine snow-capped mountain ranges, dripping forests, clean rivers and an outdoor lifestyle to kill for, all spring to mind amongst millions of people worldwide who have never been there, but dream of going. It is a gorgeous country, to be sure, but that’s not the whole story….

New Zealand, at 269,000 square kilometres, is approximately 10% larger in area than the entire United Kingdom, but with only 4.4 million people, has a population 14 times smaller. The United Kingdom has been inhabited with reasonable levels of population density for thousands of years, while New Zealand’s history, until very recent times, was one of far more sparse habitation. Europeans only began to settle in New Zealand, in small numbers, in the late 1700s and early 1800s, and it’s estimated that the pre-European Maori population was likely not more than 100,000 people, yet, despite this, New Zealanders have since managed to take their oversized country (in relation to population density) and subject it to quite significant damage (also see here, here and here).

  • 90 percent of our wetlands have been drained or degraded; lowland forest areas have been reduced to 15 percent of their pre-Maori extent; only 10 percent of the tall tussock grassland that existed in 1840 still remains.
  • Half of our endemic bird species have become extinct since people first came to New Zealand. About 500 species of animals and plants are now threatened. —

There is a clear paradox to be found in the video at top, but regrettably it is lost on both the video’s makers and most of its intended audience. Wendell Berry sums up this paradox succinctly when he wrote:

We have millions, too, whose livelihoods, amusements, and comforts are all destructive, who nevertheless wish to live in a healthy environment; they want to run their recreational engines in clean, fresh air. – The Agricultural Crisis, a Crisis of Culture, p.15, 16.

Destruction of New Zealand’s primordial purity and biodiversity didn’t only commence with the technological age, however. Pre-European human inhabitants, even in their low numbers, embarked on initial offensives:

The first 38 extinctions during human settlement were influenced by Maori hunting for food, indiscriminate forest burning, and introduction of the Polynesian rat and dogs. —

Included in this list of extinctions is the Moa — what was the world’s largest flightless bird. Experts believe the Moa was hunted to extinction in little more than a century after the arrival of the Maori canoes.

Reconstruction of what an early Maori hunt for Moa might have looked like

But the early days of European settlement took the battle to new levels of intensity, even without modern technology, and often just through sheer ignorance of the natural systems in place. Hungry settlers apparently gave little thought to the consequences of importing creatures for which there were no natural predators. Where, in the British Isles, cute, fluffy rabbits rarely get out of control, in fox-free New Zealand their introduction lead to populations so dense that farmers could literally walk around hitting them with sticks. (I’m not kidding, I’ve seen old video footage of this from the mid-1900s.) Rabbits, which like to chew grass right down to the roots, caused massive erosion of entire hillsides. By 1870 some well-meaning souls decided to introduce toothy stoats and ferrets to combat the problem — but upon their arrival these wily creatures quickly determined that New Zealand’s stock of nice, plump, flightless birds were far easier and more enjoyable pickings than the tougher, more nimble bunnies, and so headed into the bush to decimate the country’s native bird population instead. (More recent, and more desperate, efforts to combat the rabbit plague have been with Myxomatosis and RCD — a rather cruel approach, and one that is ultimately failing as the creatures develop immunity to these diseases.)

Mice, rats, cats, possums, goats, deer and pigs are other entries on the list of introduced species which have all had destabilising effects on New Zealand’s ancient systems.

Then came the ‘high-tech’ offensives — like monocrop farming and forestry, the meat and dairy industry, mining, massive watershed destruction with the installation of huge hydro-power dams and the draining of wetlands, etc. Today New Zealand takes third place in the world for highest rate of car ownership. It makes one wonder what would be left of New Zealand if it hosted a population on a par with the UK. Thankfully the mountainous terrain of much of the country makes such population densities somewhat impossible. And yet, the export-oriented country has imposed extra population pressures on itself, with its economic ambitions to meet demand from other countries — like China, for example.

One example of this is Fonterra. This is New Zealand’s largest company, accounting for more than a quarter of all NZ exports, and it also happens to be a cooperative — owned by more than 10,000 New Zealand farmers. Permaculturists often use the word ‘cooperative’ in glowing terms, but whether a cooperative has a positive or negative effect on people and place is really dependent on what these individuals are ‘cooperating’ towards…. If self-interest and profit are the priority, then such cooperatives merely become a powerful leveraging tool for capitalising on a mob-extraction of resources. This is something I expounded on in The Roots of Change – in Ourselves, or Government and Industry? — where I highlighted the need to change the central charter of business to be more holistically focussed, so CEOs are responsible for much more than just quarterly profits for shareholders.

One of the many ambitions of Fonterra, for example, has been to put some of New Zealand’s most dramatic and delicate landscapes under the hoof, with the rollout of industrial dairy farming in wholly unsuitable ecosystems, so they can export milk products to the largely lactose intolerant Chinese population — a population that has fallen prey to western dietary trends.

For those interested in more details on this, see here and here.

Koanga — New Beginnings

There are many noble efforts to change New Zealand’s destructive trajectory, however, and we need to celebrate these. One such is Kotare Village, which we highlighted recently. Based in the Hawkes Bay area of the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island, this is a new intentional community — and one with its own cooperative. This cooperative, in contrast, is drawing up a central charter, or ‘kaupapa’ (statement of purpose), that goes beyond short-term economic interests to encompass medium and long-term environmental and social health. As a community, it is effectively ‘legislating’ its own security, in a bid to safeguard itself into perpetuity.

Seedlings at Koanga
All photographs © PRI

Moreover, an integral part of the new village is a much older charitable organisation — the Koanga Institute. ‘Koanga’, in the Maori tongue, means ‘new beginnings’, or ‘new growth’. It’s a highly suitable name given the base activity of Koanga — something it’s been doing now for more than 30 years — that of saving heritage seeds and encouraging diverse, sustainable food production that goes against the globalised, industrial trend.

Kay Baxter

I asked one of Koanga’s founders, Kay Baxter, a few questions about the institute. Kay has an enviable wealth of experience with gardens, seeds and community development, and gives us an interesting look at Koanga’s history and purpose. Take a watch:

It seems clear to me that every bioregion needs its own ‘Koanga’. Industrial farming is robbing us both of diversity and nutrient diversity. It is no small thing to realise that precious seed strains that have been developed over thousands of years are being lost, and lost forever. Can you imagine the number of seasons, the wealth of local knowledge and the investment in time over successive generations of small scale farmers that have brought us the precious gift of today’s seed inventory? With our daily purchases we are endorsing and supporting the disappearance of a heritage handed to us by centuries of localised investment in plant development. When seen in this light, the work of the Koanga Institute should be seen as beyond invaluable.

Anyone can count the seeds in an apple, but only God can count the number of apples in a seed. — Robert H Schuller

Kay Baxter holds seeds of an old barley variety
— just one of more than 700 precious strains she is preserving

Koanga seed collections are available for sale

It’s been a long time coming, but now even the mainstream media are running candid articles stating that, yes, we are actually heading into economic meltdown, and with the end of the cheap energy era, it’s clear that globalised trading has seen its heyday. We do not know how long New Zealanders can continue to ship their soils, water and natural beauty off to other countries in shipping containers, but I hope they don’t wait around, doing nothing, to find out….

Koanga is working on a different model, a different dream.

Dreams are the seeds of change. Nothing ever grows without a seed, and nothing ever changes without a dream. — Debby Boone

Koanga, synergistically working with Kotare Village, is building the very foundation of all economic activity — our seed heritage. The magic of photosynthesis is the only truly sustainable energy source on this planet. Cycles of growth, decay and regrowth develop biological richness from which we can derive a stable future. All we are and have has its foundation in our soils, and in the seed which can not only regenerate them, but provide for our needs for food, fuel and shelter whilst doing so.

I thank Koanga for its work, and the many people around New Zealand who have contributed their valuable seed to it. It’s my hope that people around the world will recognise that institutes such as these quite literally hold our future in their hands.

Kay teaches at the Koanga Institute

Kay Baxter, in her element


  1. “We have millions, too, whose livelihoods, amusements, and comforts are all destructive, who nevertheless wish to live in a healthy environment; they want to run their recreational engines in clean, fresh air.” – The Agricultural Crisis, a Crisis of Culture, p.15, 16.

    Thanks for this quota from Wendell Berry! Yesterday at noon I drove out of Oslo and the highway was packed by cars going to their cabins up in the mountains, as many start their holidays these days. It’s been a frenzy building of cabins the last decades, looking more and more like mansions as Norwegian grew richer. Often their cabins are bigger than their homes, with all kind of luxury, like heated outdoor bobble baths to be used during wintertime. The wild reindeer, the only left in Europe, are suffering deeply from this construction.

    Now it’s decided to extend the 4-lines highway all the way from Oslo up to Hafjell north of Lillehammer, the ski and alpine area where the most rich have their cabins. This is of course because the people in power want to drive in 100 kilometers per hour all the way to their cabins. It’s really no other serious reason why they want to prioritize this highway, as it has limited industry.

  2. Beautiful photos and really good article.

    Fonterra’s other great desire is to see GE rye grass brought into New Zealand, jeopardising the great work of Koanga and the many, many others fighting for sustainable methods of agriculture, organic production, seed sovereignty and food resilience.

    We need all the support we can get to keep our islands GE-free, productive and beautiful. Thanks again for the article

  3. Very informative article, excellent photos, thank you..The interview with Kay Baxter was great for those of us who have heard about but not seen her or her work. Thanks Kay for having the insight to save the seed beginning at a time when minds were on other things. Your work will make a difference now and in the future in ways we probably don’t even know about yet.

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