Why New Zealand is a Country to Love

Let us lead the world in taking care of our land and people, writes distinguished professor Dame Anne Salmond

Dame Anne Salmond at the Old Government House at Auckland University. Picture / Jason Oxenham.

As New Zealanders, we live in the heart of the world’s largest ocean. More than anything else, this has shaped our identity. About 85 million years ago, New Zealand floated away from Gondwanaland, evolving in isolation with its plants and animals, along with those who arrived by wind or sea.

When the first navigators from Polynesia landed about 700 years ago, New Zealand became the last significant land mass on Earth to be found and settled by human beings.

As the first explorers arrived from the tropics, there was a flurry of innovation. They invented new forms of gardening, architecture, canoe design, textiles and tool-making, along with cosmologies and art forms. Very quickly, different ways of living emerged in different parts of the country.

About 450 years later, when the first Europeans came ashore, they faced similar challenges. New Zealand was also very different from their homelands and they had to adapt rapidly. At the same time, they learned from Maori, formidable fighters and debaters who already occupied the country.

Over the past 250 years, Maori and Europeans have fought and clashed with each other, forged alliances and marriages. The experience of Maori suggests that, although it’s good to welcome new arrivals, it’s also wise to keep control of your land. Again, this played out differently in different parts of the country.

For a small country, New Zealand has a wide diversity of regions, each with its own distinctive landscapes, character and history. As other settlers have arrived from Asia, the Pacific and elsewhere, after long, difficult journeys, they have added to the rich diversity of this small, intimate society. Exploration and innovation are in our DNA.

Because our history is short, we’re still learning how to live in these beautiful islands. Just as the first Polynesian settlers set fires that raged out of control and drove birds like the moa to extinction, farmers and foresters from Europe burned the bush, allowing topsoil to wash out to sea and ravaging fragile hill country.

This is still happening. Intensive dairying that leaves waterways too toxic to swim in, plantation forestry that chokes rivers and harbours with sediment and debris, a search for fossil fuels that supercharge climate change instead of building on our wealth of renewable energy, these are all non-adaptive — about as smart as killing off the moa.

At the same time, given our love of rivers, lakes and beaches, the diversity of New Zealand’s landscapes and seascapes, and inventive habits of mind, Kiwis have a great chance to strive for lasting prosperity.

In horticulture, viticulture, agriculture and forestry, the smartest producers are innovating high-value products, making the most of our diverse landscapes while using techniques that tread lightly on the land. The wine industry, with its range of fine wines and drive towards sustainability, is a great example.

By taking care of land and sea, these producers enhance New Zealand’s “clean green” image as one of the world’s most beautiful countries, a marvellous place to visit, do business and raise your children. They enable people to enjoy good lives and jobs in the regions, and foster a great cuisine.

At the same time, other creative Kiwis are drawing on a legacy of cultural innovation in fashion, film, music, architecture and design, visual and performing arts and writing, science and IT.

This makes New Zealand increasingly exciting and urbane, a country that celebrates diversity and reaches out to the world. These industries also touch lightly on the land and generate rewarding jobs, and the kind of prosperity that’s truly worth having.

Innovative, edgy media instigate debate and share insights with a wide range of people, making life rich and interesting. A world-class education system inspires a love of learning and shares valuable knowledge, allowing people from all backgrounds to fulfil their potential.

The idea of a “fair go” is a legacy worth fighting for. A wealthy country where many children go hungry to school, die from Third World diseases or are beaten and abused has lost its way. As the World Bank reported recently, those nations that are more egalitarian are also more prosperous and happy.

A healthy, open democracy promotes a free flow of ideas, allowing people to shape and contribute to the country they live in. Secret agendas, high-handed leaders, a sense of entitlement — these corrode trust, whether in regional or national government. There is no need to tolerate any of this in New Zealand.

From the outset, our ancestors were feisty, robust and independent. They came here to create a better life for themselves and their families. Like them, we should be prepared to experiment and innovate, rather than submitting to top-down control and following the dead-end philosophies of others. This is a country worth loving, and looking after.

Like many New Zealanders, I believe we can lead the world in taking care of our land and people. Let’s set our sights high, and work to make life here the best it can be — inventive, entrepreneurial, exciting and generous in spirit.

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New Zealand Herald

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