Seven Rivers Walking | Haere Mārire documents a series of protest walks and talks along the rivers of Canterbury. The city rivers of Christchurch and the braided rivers of the Canterbury Plains are in trouble. Threatened by poisoning, plundering and encroachment – they are in crisis – and Cantabrians are getting upset.
Even wild rivers, such as the Rakaia River are in decline. Beginning life in the snowfields of the Southern Alps, this internationally significant braided river is the largest and most outstanding one in New Zealand. It spreads across a braided gravelly-bed up to two kilometres wide on it’s journey to the coast. One of several alpine rivers that laid out the alluvial Canterbury Plains over millennia, as they erode away the mountains. Now the Rakaia limps to the coast – significant water-takes on every side threaten it’s natural state.
Even the high-country is not safe from the rampant synthetic fertiliser-driven ‘greening’ of once dry tussock alpine land. This agricultural encroachment threatens alpine water quality as well as fish, birds and plant habitats. Where is the ‘Pure New Zealand’ image we are so fond of promoting in this? Shelter belts are destroyed to make way for irrigators. More and more wells are dug. Our water is taken for free by overseas-owned industrial ‘farmers’. Nitrate pollution increases on our leachy plains. Fish can no longer survive as algae blooms in nutrient loaded water. Braided-river birds struggle to flourish in reduced habitat. Clear-felling of monoculture forests cause sediment to clog the rivers. Local farmers are encouraged by banks to shift to high-intensive dairying and take on more debt. Many now offer ‘dairy support’ for absentee land-owners. Are New Zealand farmers becoming peasants in their own land?
In the city – factories and cars leach contaminants. Sediment from unfettered housing development turns the Opawaho Heathcote River into mud. And city folk throw their plastic rubbish down the banks.
Yet, the people of Canterbury owe the rivers the very ground they live on, and the fresh clean water from the aquifers they drink.
In Seven Rivers Walking | Haere Mārire we follow some of the people of Canterbury who walk and raft and dig around – the river monitors, the river guardians. The collectives are many and diverse – with memberships from 1 to 100,000. All combined in their single-minded effort to see the health of their rivers restored. They get organised – they walk, they talk, they protest, they make a play, perform a skit, paint, talk with the regional council – Environment Canterbury – they demand action. They seek solutions.
At times it seems like the fertilizer companies, the irrigation companies, the factories, the politicians and the bureaucracy are in cahoots with each other. Ordinary folk and farmers feel powerless – their voices are small. There are not enough controls in place. No one is properly supervising what the city factories and international corporate-farmers are up to. The wheels of bureaucracy are slow and shiny and the government continues to pour money into irrigation and give the river-water away to overseas owners.
In 2010, hundreds of people build a stone cairn in Cathedral Square to protest the illegitimate installation of an unelected council who threaten to build more damns, canals and irrigation schemes. This time, seven years later, people walk to shift something in ourselves. An old knowing comes to the surface – just as the eel who lives in the dark aquifers rises from the elemental realm.
Everyone can move forward together knowing that the rivers must be treated as whole living eco-systems with spiritual, cultural and natural values – and not just as an economic resource. To respect biodiversity and to live within the means of the natural world.