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Environment and History

Environmental Failure, Success and Sustainable Development: The Hauraki Plains Wetlands Through Four Generations of New Zealanders

Matthew Hatvany

Environment and History 14(2008): 469-95. doi: 10.3197/096734008X368402

From 1875 to 1920 the floodplains of the Hauraki Plains, the largest wetland complex in New Zealand, were almost entirely transformed through logging of kahikatea, diking and canalising of rivers, and drainage of the land. One of the world's most biologically diverse landscapes, millennia in the making, and sustainably exploited for centuries by Maori, was transformed by Pakeha colonists (White newcomers) into a landscape dominated by grass. This environmental transformation is interpreted as a result of culture: a colonial people whose culture blinded them to other ways of interacting with wetlands. Taking a long-term approach following one family of Pakeha through four generations of interaction with the Hauraki Plains wetlands, this study argues that the environmental transformation that happened there was less a question of culture than of a specific time and place (context of civilisation). As contexts of civilisation changed, and as later generation Pakeha became New Zealand-born, their sense of place, and especially the understanding of their place within the environment, changed. Ironically, restoration of the wetlands and the future of sustainable development in places like the Hauraki Plains are dependent on the past, on people better understanding the environmental failures and successes of their ancestors, and that no people are axiomatically predisposed by culture to be environmental destructors.


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