Much of our land is without any trees, or is without the right trees, the undergrowth and the spongy debris, leaf litter and humus that slows floods and erosion. The resulting catastrophic floods require radical responses now, unless we are willing to continually suffer even more into the future.

To change this, we need to think further into the future, and act on what we see. Generally, government investment and focus on the future is inadequate, and there is a need for a major agency dedicated to future planning and action. Central government must get the policy teeth and find the cash to act now.

How do we re-clothe the whenua to reduce these risks? There is a courageous New Zealand precedent to safeguard people and the land. After Cyclone Bola in 1988, the government proposed a way to provide a more sustainable hill country economy.

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The government ‘FARM Partnership’ proposal was devised to help drive an agreement between central, regional, and local government and farmers. The idea was to enable hill and other farmers across Aotearoa to radically change their land use. Initially, the focus was on the hills from East Cape almost to Napier. Basically, in some areas about a third of hill country land would be retired, a third would be plantation forested and the most suitable third would be ‘sustainably’ farmed. Farms would be merged to provide financially viable sizes.

This proposal was never implemented. In 1991, the government cancelled the funding for the proposed plan. In 1992 they created the East Coast Forestry Project to provide contestable subsidies for plantation forestry, and only in the Gisborne District. Later, a small percentage of the subsidies were for retiring land to native cover.

In the subsequent years, unsubsidised pine forestry has surged over many of the farms of the East Coast and other areas in Aotearoa. There have been government attempts to help the reintroduction of native forest, but the results are small compared to the need.

Extensive monoculture areas of radiata pine plantation have major problems, including the effect on rural communities, the speed of rain runoff, disease and market risks, the adverse consequences for our ecosystems, the need for chemical treatment of the wood, and the lower value of the wood compared to better alternatives. The lower value increases pressure to clear-fell whole hillsides and militates against the sustainable selective logging that is profitable for more valuable timber trees.

Radiata pine forests can be profitable, but in many cases the rest of us pay for much of the social, ecological, deferred, and downstream costs. Offsite forestry slash and soil runoff are only signs of much larger problems with large pine forests. Under-regulated large-scale pine investment has occurred because the politics of requiring full payment of the downstream and other costs has been too difficult.

Schemes to enable large-scale retirement to native cover, adapted to all New Zealand regions, could change Aotearoa so as to better deal with the ravages of past land use and to help meet future threats. The long-term benefits for all in Aotearoa will require government investments for the changes. The funding will need major changes to revenue-gathering systems that focus on those most able to pay.

The third native, third plantation, third farm idea for hill country would not necessarily have been sufficient to heal the East Coast, even if more suitable forestry species had been used. Many New Zealand regions with steep hills and highly erodible soils will need even greater protection and ecological repair.

There will also need to be deep-seated changes across Aotearoa, to increase the tree cover and wetlands in lowland and urban areas. This would almost certainly need to significantly reduce the ways in which such land is presently used.

We will know that we are on the right track when some, who are slow to adapt, complain about the depredations of kaka flocks in cities and plains. We will know there is progress when there is a rural re-population due to sustainable rural employment.

Even if we were not trying to blunt global warming, we need far more trees, and the right trees. A sustainable future may need well over half of Aotearoa to be in native ngahere (bush). This scale of revolutionary change will not protect us from all the past ecological carnage and only blunt the future worsening storms. It will take hundreds of years to re-establish much of our ecosystems.  

But without such change, Aotearoa could descend into a spiral of social, ecological, and economic damage with erosion and flooding as a major driver. We cannot have increasing floods and soil loss, without severely harming our social and economic fabric.

Floods have bounded my life. In the 1940s and 50s I was a child on a farm in the Pakuratahi Valley, over the hill from the Esk Valley. The 1938 flood was an overshadowing memory for the Esk, Pakuratahi, Tongoio and many other communities in the East Coast. In 1988 during the Bola flooding, I watched logs battering the lower Mohaka River Bridge, the lifeline of the farming community that used the bridge.

That bridge, built in 1962, replaced one that was swept away in a 1938 flood. During Cyclone Gabrielle, logs again threatened the bridge. Now the road from Napier to the Mohaka and Wairoa areas is likely to be closed for at least three months, due partly to a washed-out SH2 bridge.

Cyclone Gabrielle signals that action and money is needed rather than words. Waiting until after the general election will miss the boat. The political drivers of change will fade unless victims, businesses, local government, and others keep political feet to the fire. This is our moment.

Honorary Associate Professor George Thomson is a part-owner of a broad-leaf hardwood micro-forest in Northern Hawkes Bay.

Election 2023: Beyond the Soap Box is a University of Otago series.

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