On the island of mangroves

veronika Veronika Meduna photographing mangroves at Motu Manawa. / Kennedy Warne

Tonight’s “Our Changing World” radio programme features a visit by Veronika Meduna and I to Motu Manawa, the “island of mangroves” beside Auckland’s northwestern motorway. Here’s how it came about . . .

I hadn’t seen Veronika Meduna, one of the founders of Radio New Zealand’s long-running “Our Changing World” science and environment programme, for years. She’s based in Wellington, and I’m in Auckland, and our paths don’t cross very often. So when she texted to ask if we could visit some mangroves for a radio spot, I was delighted. Both because she’s a very good radio presenter, and because any day in the mangroves is a good day.

I immediately thought I would take her to Motu Manawa/Pollen Island, my “wilderness next door”—a nature reserve in the heart of a marine reserve right next to SH16, one of the main commuter routes between central Auckland and the northwest.

The day before she arrived I thought I should check that my usual route—under the motorway bridge over the Whau River at Te Atatu—was still open. Major roadworks on that stretch made me suspect it might not be. I squelched through ankle-deep mud as I made my approach. A man in a high-vis vest standing under the bridge spotted me and called, “Where do you think you’re going, young fella?”

“Just going to the island, if that’s OK?”

It wasn’t OK. There was scaffolding around the concrete pier and some workers chipping away with chisels. Evidently that constituted a hazard to walkers. The Well-Connected Alliance—the construction consortium doing the motorway work—had disconnected me.

I returned home to consider my options. Find some other mangroves—there are plenty up the Whau—or . . . approach by sea.

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Tuhoe’s Bloody Sunday

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Police approach Maungapohatu through the rugged Te Urewera forest. / Alexander Turnbull Library

On this day 100 years ago a notorious arrest took place.

It happened at Maungapohatu—Tuhoe’s sacred mountain and site of a messianic community established by prophet Rua Kenana.

On Sunday April 2, pills 1916, order Police Commissioner John Cullen led a column of 57 sweating constables, armed with automatic pistols and carbines, up a steep path from the valley below. They had walked all the way from Ruatahuna, deep in the forest heartland of Te Urewera, to apprehend the prophet on charges of sedition and resisting arrest.

In a show of contempt, Cullen flouted protocol and rode his horse on to the marae and up to a newly built wharenui where Rua stood with two of his sons. Cullen demanded Rua’s immediate surrender.

From somewhere, a shot was fired—it has never been determined from which side—and a short but disastrous exchange of fire left Rua’s son Toko and his uncle, Te Maipi, dead, and several on both sides injured.

Further horror followed. Descendants speak of rape and torture. Several men were mock-buried in an open grave. Jewellery, money and greenstone taonga were pillaged as trophies.

The events of that day have seared Tuhoe’s memory, and continue to do so, despite Crown apologies and a landmark treaty settlement.

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Wildlife and chocolate

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Wright’s skink, endemic to Seychelles, on Aride Island

My story on ecological restoration in Seychelles has just been published on National Geographic’s website (with a compilation of video clips at the start), and will soon be available in the March 2016 print edition.
One of the islands I visited, but which didn’t end up being included in the story, was Aride, which has been a nature reserve for 50 years. Unlike some privately owned island reserves in Seychelles, which have luxury resorts on them, Aride is home only to nature and a handful of caretaker staff. I was there for less than 24 hours, but I felt a quiet enchantment on Aride that I experienced nowhere else. Here’s a short account of that visit. . . .

I have a knack, it seems, of finding the one seat on any small open boat that gets the greatest soaking from the sea. And so it proved on the eight-mile journey by inflatable from Praslin to Aride—one a well populated residential and resort island in the eastern Seychelles, the other a privately owned nature reserve with a caretaker staff of six. I arrived well drenched, but that was no hardship in the tropical heat of Seychelles. And especially not when stepping ashore on one of Seychelles’ best preserved enclaves of indigenous wildlife.

As with most Seychelles islands, Aride was heavily cleared for coconut plantations in the 1800s, and the copra era persisted until well into the 20th century. Despite the coming and going of vessels to carry coconuts away for processing, not to mention the movement of labourers on and off the island, Aride somehow escaped being invaded by rats. As a result, much of the island’s ground-dwelling reptile and invertebrate fauna remains intact, and now that the island is a reserve, seabird populations are rebounding. More than a million roseate terns, lesser noddies and tropical shearwaters breed on the rocky slopes of the island.

On a night walk with wildlife officer Juan Michel I heard the haunting calls of wedge-tailed shearwaters, and next morning I watched seabirds emerging from the forest canopy as if being breathed out like winged pollen. White terns, noddies, shearwaters, and, soaring above them all, crawling across the sky in slow motion, frigatebirds, pirates of the sky.

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A Gulf in my thinking

For the past six years, the Hauraki Gulf Forum has been holding seminars on the current state and future prospects of the gulf. The seminars are part of the SeaChange initiative to create a marine spatial plan for Auckland’s marine front doorstep.

This year, one segment of the day-long seminar—entitled “Heart Talk”—focused on the emotional and spiritual connections people feel to the gulf. I was invited to talk about my own relatedness to an expanse of sea that has been part of my life since very early childhood.

The seminar was videoed, and my talk can be watched above, and the text is available here.

At the seminar there was a palpable sense of positive change happening, with more in store. Hauraki Gulf Forum Chair John Tregidga (who reminded me on the day that we had connections going back to my very first media job, at the appropriately and coincidentally named Hauraki Herald newspaper in Thames in 1980) summarised a few of these developments in his opening remarks:

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Wishful sinking

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Boys swim in a freshwater pond in Nanumea, Tuvalu

Will atoll nations like Kiribati sink as sea level rises, or not?

The prevailing media narrative—which you encounter everywhere: in print, on air, online—is yes. And that narrative nearly prevailed in the choice of headline for my Kiribati story in National Geographic’s just-published climate change special issue.

Several months ago, my editor at the magazine sent me a layout of the story with a gigantic headline stretching across the opening spread: “Going, going, gone.”

I gulped. Only six months before I had written a story for National Geographic’s website that described scientific findings that more than 75 percent of atoll islands in the Pacific are maintaining their size or growing, despite slowly rising seas. I was deeply opposed to suggesting that these islands will soon be going down the oceanic gurgler.

I discussed with my editor the idea of putting a question mark after “gone.” But the problem with doing that, I felt, was that the familiar slogan contained such a strong message that merely adding a squiggly piece of punctuation at the end would scarcely dent its impact.

Psychologists have a term for this: confirmation bias, the tendency for the mind to interpret new information based on previous assumptions. Another cognitive bias (there are dozens of them; it’s surprising we can think straight at all, ever) would also come into play: the availability cascade, in which a collective belief gains increasing plausibility through constant repetition. Readers would expect to see a “disappearing islands” headline, I argued, and a question mark was unlikely to disturb that misperception.

I and one of the National Geographic researchers simultaneously came up with an alternative headline: “Against the Tide.” This appealed to me because not only is it the challenge that people of low-lying atolls face every month, as spring tides bring sea level within striking distance of coastal land and infrastructure, but also many I-Kiribati people are taking a stand against the tide of world opinion that their islands are doomed. They “refuse to think of their homeland as a ‘disappearing island nation,’ its fate already out of their hands,” I wrote in my story. “They do not think of themselves as ‘sinking islanders,’ rather as descendants of voyagers, inheritors of a proud tradition of endurance and survival.”

The editors approved the new headline, and the print magazine has duly been published with the title “Against the Tide” above the Kiribati story.

A fortnight ago, however, the headline battle was fought again, when the online version of the story appeared. It was published under the line “Water May Erase These Pacific Islands but Not their Culture.” Again my heart sank, and I begged the editors to erase the word “erase.”

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On frigatebird’s wings

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Tevi Teaero on the reef in South Tarawa

Meet Teweiariki Teaero—poet, store artist, ambulance lexicographer, patient educator and candidate for parliament in Kiribati’s upcoming elections.

Teweiariki—Tevi, for short—was an invaluable source of Kiribati traditional knowledge for me when I was in Tarawa researching my story on sea-level rise for National Geographic’s special issue on climate change. His account of the trinity of marawa, karawa and tarawa—sea, sky and land—formed a key part of my narrative.

I was especially interested in the way that I-Kiribati think of marawa, the sea.

“We do not see the ocean as a separating entity, but a connecting entity,” Tevi told me. “As a mother that provides food, and as a highway to be travelled.”

I had read similar statements in the work of renowned Tongan scholar Epeli Hau’ofa. In his influential essay “Our Sea of Islands,” Hau’ofa said that Pacific Islanders “were connected rather than separated by the sea. Far from being sea-locked peoples marooned on coral or volcanic tips of land, islanders formed an oceanic community based on voyaging.”

Hau’ofa distilled this idea into a single memorable formulation: Pacific peoples do not view their world as islands in a far sea, but as a sea of islands.
Clearly, Tevi and Epeli are paddling the same canoe.

In a photo essay that accompanies my story on National Geographic’s website, I quoted a line from one of Tevi’s poems, “Song of Rising Isles.” It is a poem of optimism, neatly reversing the prevailing (but inaccurate) notion that the atolls of Kiribati—not to mention those of Tuvalu, Tokelau and Marshalls—are “sinking isles.”

But it was another poem of Tevi’s that I cherished as I tried to express something of the soul of the I-Kiribati in the words I was writing. “On Eitei’s Wings” evokes the high-soaring frigatebird, Kiribati’s national bird. With Tevi’s permission, here is that poem:

On eitei’s wings

up
there
she floats
wings spread apart
such grace
majesty
on the wind
like a kite
but free

come now pen
give me wings
that i may fly
let me go
so i may hover
and then soar
on eitei’s wings
and rain abau
with
scented words
from
eitei’s wings

– Teweiariki Teaero, from the collection On Eitei’s Wings, 2000
abau means “my land”

King tides, king hits

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Men working—seawall repairs at Temwaiku village in Tarawa

When sun, moon and earth are in alignment and in closest proximity to each other, the sea responds by producing the highest tides of the year, known as king tides. These tides can be 30 or 40 centimetres higher than a normal spring tide, and since that is the expected increase in global sea level by mid-century, today’s king tides show us what ordinary spring tides will be like in 2050.

For low-lying atolls like Tarawa, capital of Kiribati, that new baseline will be a problem. When I visited Tarawa in April 2015 to research a story on sea-level rise the islands were still repairing seawalls and re-armouring vulnerable areas of coastline after damage inflicted by a king tide in February. That event closed the maternity ward in one of Tarawa’s hospitals, not far from where a shipwreck was pushed ashore, piercing a seawall.

Photographs I took of the damage and repair work have just been published on National Geographic’s website, here.

The challenge for all low-lying atolls—indeed, for all coastlines—is that as the sea creeps higher, coastal defences such as seawalls and rock barricades will be more frequently and more severely tested, and in some cases the cost of protection will rise to untenable levels.

What then?

The rising seas of Kiribati

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Traditional and modern meet on the water in Tarawa lagoon

In April of this year I spent some time in Tarawa, the capital of Kiribati, researching a story on Pacific Islands and sea-level rise for a National Geographic special issue on climate change. Much of the content of that issue, on sale in November, is now available online, including my Kiribati story.

When a story, long in the production works, finally sees the light of day (or the light of a computer screen) it brings a flood of memories of people met, places seen, food eaten (sand worms!) and all the many experiences that a writer gathers up, like a fishing boat trolling through rich seas.

Fishing is a fact of daily life in Kiribati, of course. I remember standing in the check-in queue at Nadi airport, in Fiji, en route to Tarawa, and striking up a conversation with a Kiribati man who was getting boxes of kava root weighed, to see how many he could include in his luggage allowance. (Finely ground kava root, mixed with water, is a mild intoxicant that looks like mud and tastes like cardboard, and is hugely popular among Kiribati men, who down vats of the stuff every night while listening to karaoke at kava bars.)

I asked the man if he was a fisherman. He looked at me quizzically as if not quite grasping the word.

“Do you catch fish?”

He grinned. “Every man can catch fish,” he said.

So they can, and do. Every day I watched men (and sometimes women and children) setting nets near the shores of Tarawa lagoon, then walking around splashing the water to scare fish into them. More serious fishers make overnight or multi-day trips to other atolls. I hired one group of fishers to take me to Abaiang Atoll, and recorded some of that experience in my story. On the way, we stopped beside a huge commercial tuna fishing vessel that was anchored in the lagoon to buy a few skipjack to use for bait. While we waited, an old man in a traditional outrigger canoe—known in Gilbertese as a wa—paddled past with the same idea. That’s him in the photograph above.

I enjoyed seeing his feather-light handmade craft next to the industrial steel of the Japanese vessel, both painted the same lagoon blue.

Traditional ways and modern ways rub shoulders uneasily in the islands. Perhaps they do everywhere. Climate change brings into sharp and painful focus the inescapable influence of the industrialised world on remote islands. Remote geographically, but not atmospherically, as we are now all aware.

At the Paris climate summit in December, island leaders will try once more to sheet home the responsibility of the powerful developed nations to assist small island states to cope with the effects that global warming is already having, and will continue to have as the seas rise.

Splitting up, getting lost—lessons for the outdoors

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On today’s “Off the Beaten Track” segment on Radio New Zealand’s Nine to Noon programme, I am talking about the problems of becoming separated from hiking companions during a tramp in the forest or mountains, with a few tips about how to avoid being lost, and what to do if you find that you are. Listen to the podcast here. Notes for the talk follow . . .

There have been a couple of instances in the last few weeks of people becoming lost or separated in the outdoors. One, involving a trail runner in the Rimutaka Ranges near Wellington, had a happy ending. She was found 24 hours after becoming disoriented and spending a night in the forest. The other, involving a young American woman in a party of three crossing an alpine pass in Mt Aspiring National Park, did not. Her body was recovered from the Young River several days after her companions raised the alarm after tramping out.

I will not discuss or speculate on the details of either case, but want to talk in general about becoming separated and/or lost in the outdoors. How to avoid it, and what to do in the event that it happens.

Intentional separation
Groups split up. There are innumerable reasons why, from “I’ll sprint ahead and put the kettle on at the hut” to “You go ahead, I want to take photographs.” Sometimes it happens that one member of a group is just a slower walker than others. Or maybe has a new pair of tramping boots and has blisters. Or has suffered a mild sprain. Or maybe is feeling under the weather.

Should groups split up?

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Bridging the economy/environment divide

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Achim Steiner addresses media at the World Parks Congress, store Sydney, November 2014

At last year’s World Parks Congress—a gathering of the “protected areas community” held every ten years under the auspices of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature—there was much talk about the need to recognise the economic contribution of parks and other protected areas.

One of the clearest advocates for an economic transformation in which natural capital is recognised and explicitly valued was Achim Steiner, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme and under-secretary-general of the UN.

“We need to bring into the treasuries and ministries of finance and the systems of rational accounting a much better appreciation of the value that protected areas deliver,” he told congress delegates in Sydney. As competition for resources and public finance intensifies, societies will not invest in nature protection without an economic justification, he said.

Traditional markets have a role to play, says Steiner. Although markets have historically treated the environment as a limitless (and therefore unpriced) good, they are an essential mechanism for restoring nature “to its rightful place at the centre of well-being, which is the ultimate purpose of the economy.” By giving due weight to the economic performance of natural capital, markets can undergird, rather than undermine, nature protection.

Indeed, until the environment’s economic contributions are included in national and corporate balance sheets, he says, a true accounting will not occur. “Conventional measurements of both macro- and microeconomic performance—GDP and corporate profit respectively—are substantially wrong because externalities are not accounted for, and they will continue to be wrong until the valuing of economic activities also includes their impacts, and the assessment of profits also value the negative externalities of business. In short, you cannot manage what you do not measure.”

In the midst of such commentary on the economics of nature, Steiner made a surprising comment. “I believe that the entire Planet Earth is a sacred site; one that sustains life, prosperity, civilization and spiritual values.”

In conversation with Steiner, I asked him how he reconciled such incommensurate values as sacredness with the metrics of economic markets. Here are some edited excerpts from that discussion . . .

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