Semester in New Zealand – Stolen Water – by Matthew Breeze. The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy, at NorthStarReports.org and facebook.com/NorthStarReports
Minnesota is The Land of Ten Thousands Lakes, as our license plates so often remind us. There is water almost everywhere we look. Those of us to live in Duluth or up the North Shore look out at the sun rise over the largest fresh water lake in the world every morning. Many of us grew up on lakes or have family cabins on lakes or rivers. Minnesotan are attached to their water. Lake Superior is more than just a lake, it is our lake, it is part of our identity. The waterways and lakes are part of who we are as people.
Now imagine if that water, that many of us hold near and dear, was taken away from us. Stolen without our consent. Not just a few drops or part of a river, but all of it. Gone. What would we do? How would we feel? What if Duluthians no longer had access to Lake Superior?
This is what has happened to the Ngati Rangi people of New Zealand. They are the tangata whenua, or people of the land. They are the Maori people of Mount Ruapehu. There is a struggle for water, but not just water in the sense that we westerners are accustomed to. For the Maori people of New Zealand water is not only water, it is sacred, it is their old people, their ancestors, their identity, they do not talk of the rivers, but to the rivers. They have a special personal connection to the water and the rivers of their home.
[This is one of the intakes where water is moved from the river into an underground pipe.]
The water in the rivers of their home is being taken by a series of twenty two concrete dams and collection units for use in a large hydro power plant. The water from the rivers and streams around Mount Ruapehu is damned and then funneled into a series of underground tunnels. Instead of traveling down their natural paths to the ocean like they have done for thousands of years, the waterways running down the mountain have been taken by a hydro power company. A vast network of tunnels and pipes moves the water do a large reservoir behind a huge dam.
This is what the Maori people have come up against. Steel and concrete instead of their ancestral streams and rivers. The image of a dry river bed has become a symbol of lasting colonization. The water was taken without their consent or even input. The government and the power company worked together to generate power.
After many decades of enduring this tragedy the Maori people of Nagti Rangi went to the courts to achieve justice. Years of battles in the courts produced outcomes favorable to the corporations. The money and time spent thus created an outcome that equaled the status quo. From this point the Maori people agreed to initiate talks with the power corporation to see if negotiations could find a better result than going through the courts.
[This is what the river is suppose to look like in a natural environment.]
Negotiations proved better than battles in the courts. The corporate officials were invited to a Marae (a traditional meeting house where my study abroad group had the honor of staying at also). From here the officials, the Maori leaders and older community members went to the rivers and talked about what they meant to Maori people. That the rivers are sacred and that it is a desecration of their ancestors that the rivers are blocked and diverted in steel pipes from their natural paths.
These visits and the lengthy discussions between Maori leaders and company officials have brought about promising changes. The officials and the CEO came to the conclusion that a change needed to come after seeing what the rivers meant to Maori people, including tears from elders at the sight of their dry rivers. The corporate officials could not look at the rivers and the water the same way after actually seeing it. When people take the time to go out and see the land for themselves rather than simply making decisions from an office a long way away the outcomes can be different, as well as environmentally or culturally conscious.
This change is occurring right now. Water flows are being returned to the rivers, the dams on the rivers are being opened to let some water through.
[This is my battle buddy Mary standing on the dam. The reservoir of stolen water is visible in the background.]
The Maori and the corporation have come to a number of agreements over this important ancestral water. The four rivers with the most water flow will have water running through them by 2017. This agreement seems to have satisfied both sides. The Maori leaders have said that “Hydro (power) has its place, but so do the rivers.”
The history between Maori people, the Ngati Rangi in this case, has been harsh and unfair toward the Maori. The balance of power as a result of colonization has often been to corporations and the government. Today however people in New Zealand are having conversations with each other and coming to agreements that can please both sides. The Maori once again can see the river run and flow. The rivers are alive once again. This has immense cultural ramifications that will reverberate throughout the community as time goes on. The next year will be a time of continued successes for the Maori as the rest of the agreed upon rivers has their dams opened up. The power company still gets water from these rivers to feed the reservoir that allows the generation of hydro electric power. This story is a story of compromise and communication overcoming decades of struggle and courtroom battles. When people talk to each other the results here were beneficial. Maybe this can be emulated in other parts of New Zealand and other parts of the world as indigenous groups fight for their sacred places to be respected.
About Matthew Breeze, NSR Editor. I am a junior at the college of St. Scholastica this year and I am majoring in Global, Cultural, and Language studies with a minor in spanish and a minor in political science. I will be returning to St. Scholastica in December. I am originally from Bemidji, Minnesota, but I have come to consider Duluth as my second home.
I have a passion for politics and I hope to someday work for the State Department or the Foreign Service working in international relations in some way shape or form.
I have always wanted to go to New Zealand. I have been to Canada and Mexico, but I really haven’t been anywhere different than the United States. The city in Mexico I was in was a tourist trap and Canada looks like my northern Minnesota home. I have a family connection to New Zealand as well as the general desire to visit. My grandfather was in New Zealand for rest and relaxation during World War II. The stories of his time in NZ have been passed down through the family and are one of the biggest reasons that I decided to do a study abroad semester in NZ.
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22 responses to “Semester in New Zealand – Stolen Water – by Matthew Breeze. The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy, at NorthStarReports.org and facebook.com/NorthStarReports”
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I love that this river means so much to this group of people, but it is also sad that this love has been taken away from them. What was the original reason for taking the water from the river, for energy? It is really motivating to see that a group of people moved this corporation so much that they decided to change what they had been doing and helping reinstate this river back to its glory. Do you know how long it will take the river to go back to its normal self, or will it every be the way it used to be? Like you said, maybe other groups across the globe can take this advice and try talking instead of fighting or violence.
I connected with the article right away because the topic relates to a research project I am in the process of working on. The research project that I am working on deals with the human rights of Indigenous peoples. So I was quite excited that I came across your article, it has helped me with my research process. I will most likely use your article as a source for my research project. One thing I really enjoyed about the article was the use of poetic language: ‘’they do not talk of the rivers, but to the rivers’’. The use of poetic language really drew me in as a reader and I think that is important to do as a writer. One thing that actually surprised me was the conversation the corporations and the Indigenous peoples had in regards to the river water. I was and still am surprised because historically there has been a violation of Indigenous peoples rights. While colonization of the land have had huge social, political, and economical impact on Indigenous peoples globally. I think it was clever to include a solution that is actually going to implemented in the future, instead of concluding the article with hopelessness.To read that there would be a plan of action to compromise gave me hope that Indigenous peoples human rights are being considered in situations that impact them deeply. Overall your article was intriguing, informative, and well written. Looking forward to reading other material by you in the future.
Thank you so much. I am glad that you thought it was interesting and that it could help in some way shape or form in a research project. The Maori people here in New Zealand have been battling corporations for a long time, but are seeing some gains today. The relatively small population of New Zealand and the relatively large percentage of the population that are Maori (15% or so) make it a little easier for them to have some political clout, but fighting large corporations and governments is still very hard. Thanks again!
in so many nations around the world indigenous people are often overlooked and rarely heard. Their living situation, their lack of participation and integration with society, and their constant diminishing are, whiteout a doubt, consequences of colonialism. In Honduras , just like in New Zealand, indigenous people are fighting for their water. The Lencas, just like the Maori,have been trying to protect their rivers after the government and bog corporations have made decisions to use them without their consent. People have lost their lives for protecting their water. I can only hope that one day society and the government start listening to indigenous people and remember its is from them we all come from.
Water is every where especially living in Duluth so not having access to it would be a big change. When I began to read this I got mad and sad that the water was being taken by this company because of the strong meaning it had to the people and ancestors. Also I liked the amount of fight the people put up against the company to get their water back. To me, it is very promising that both sides where able to work out agreements outside of the courtroom. More environmental issues like this need to get solved around the world. Hopefully large companies will look at New Zealand and see that compromises can be made to keep the people happy and the energy company happy.
The parallels you draw between our home and their home is incredibly helpful to put things in perspective. We often take for granted our seemingly endless supply of water because it’s the only thing we can see for miles out of Duluth. But for the Maori people, the water is sacred, and its disappearance is intolerable and very apparent. It is amazing to think about the rights that some people believe they have to control elements more than other people. I am so glad that a compromise was created to give the Maori the water that belongs to them, while maintaining the corporation’s plan for hydro energy for the other people of New Zealand. If more people were willing to communicate like this, there would be fewer problems. Recognizing the sacredness of a people’s land or resources is so important for a bigger people to do before they make any decisions regarding that space; although it shouldn’t necessarily be their choice to make in the first place, if it must be that way, they need to remember that the other people are their equals and they deserve respect, especially when the decisions impact every aspect of a people’s life. Thank you for sharing this article with us. There is always more to learn about the far corners of the earth.
You are so right. If only we could communicate more with each other there could be more compromises and solutions that could potentially please all sides. Thank you for your comments
We are fortunate to live in a state with an abundance of water. Even right here in the U.S. states like California are conserving water due to a drought. It is extremely unfair that the sacred water of the Ngati Rangi people was taken from them without their consent. Unfortunately, the voice of many indigenous peoples have been overlooked throughout history. I was happy to hear that the people and Hydro reached some sort of compromise. It was not Hydro’s water to take, but if the people find the agreement mutually beneficial then I cannot object.
This made me think of the many different struggles of indigenous peoples that I have recently heard of. First, the movie “Even the Rain”came to mind and the fight for water rights with powerful people in a system formed through colonization. Also, the current fight in the United States with many Native Americans coming together to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline paints a decent picture of the lack of acknowledgment indigenous peoples get. It is hard to relate to someone that is oppressed when you do not have the same experiences; this article makes it easy to compare and empathize with the Maori because we all need water. If even the most basic need of water is denied to a people, how can they be respected and dignified in other aspects of life? The Maori not only need the water, but they deserve to regain the water that belongs to them.
Wonderful article Matt! New Zealand really is a pioneer in the western world when it comes to reconciliation for the loss of indigenous people’s rights. This could be because of the size of the country, the consistency in language of the Maori people or their tendency to unite, organize and oppose. It is most likely a combination of these things, but of course the willingness of the government or in this case the corporation plays a huge factor. I applaud them for caring enough to listen and negotiate instead of battle in the courtroom. Even if it is a difficult task I think every country with such issues should follow in New Zealand’s footsteps. Well written article Matt; I especially enjoyed the parallels you made with Duluth and Lake Superior. Have a great rest of the semester!
Matt thank you for sharing your experience. This was a great article the first paragraph made me really focus on how important Lake Superior has been in my life and to think that it would be taken away from me seemed really unfair. reading your article I felt bad for the Maori people and the troubles that went through and are still struggling with. This situation is like a bad pattern, even in the US we see other Native American spiritual locations desecrated and used by corporations for a profit. It really surprised me that the corporation was willing to negotiate. you don’t see a lot of that today. It will be interesting to see what this negotiation will do and add to other future problems over sacred land. Great Article Matt!!
Thanks Thomas. Whenever myself and the students in my study abroad group introduce ourselves to Maori people they ask what our home waters are. Identifying with a home river or waterway was a traditional way to identify oneself. If you ever come to New Zealand maybe you will say that your home water is Lake Superior.
Thank you so much for your thoughtful article. I read this before hiking along the North Shore, and it was present on my mind as I spent an entire day dedicated to the appreciation of our water and geography. This article initiates a beginning to an expansive conversation that could occur around native rights and sovereignty. So many of these stories end in defeat of the wishes of naive communities, and so it was uplifting and inspiring to hear a story that acknowledged and accommodated the voices of native communities. It is only from the successful stories that we are able to learn how to engage in these important conversations to reach compromise and understanding as we incorporate histories and cultures.
It is really nice to see compromise in other nations with its native residents. It shows the sliver that America has with its native population and could possibly lead to better relations. Another thing is that it is truly amazing that the water is actually being restored to some rivers, and compromise was actually found. That concept seems out of reach here in the US. It is inspiring what the Maori did for something that was so meaningful to them and should be used as an example of actually reaching out to companies to compromise.
Wonderful article! I really enjoyed reading this because pervious to this I didn’t even know about this issue. While I think it’s important to our future to use other forms of energy like hydroelectric, it blew my mind to hear that they were using a river that had such a meaningful significance to the Maori people. It’s crazy to see how indigenous people are still being oppressed even today, but it’s still happening in the United States too. It’s not unusual for companies to overrule the desires and needs of others, especially indigenous people. It gave me a sense of relief when you said that the CEO changed their mind after seeing how much the river meant to the Maori people. The fact that they made changes to their plans is really important because that doesn’t usually happen.
The trauma indigenous communities face due to environmental dispossession is heartbreaking. Like you said, colonization is not a ghost in our past, but a lasting institution that still devastates. Thanks for sharing this story – far too often are indigenous communities STILL overlooked. It’s really uplifting that the Maori elders and company officials were able to reach an agreement. You wrote, “when people take the time to go out and see the land for themselves rather than simply making decisions from an office a long way away the outcomes can be different,” and I think that’s a really powerful sentiment. If only it happened more often, maybe there would be more stories like this!
Indigenous people have been stepped on all throughout history. Native Americans had their culture stripped away from them in Catholic reform schools (not to say that Catholicism is wrong or destructive). Now the Maori people are having their sacred rivers taken away from them. They are being stripped of their culture, and that is just wrong. I don’t think disrespecting a religion or culture is moral. That being said, I am happy the government and the Maori could reach a consensus on how to please both parties; that doesn’t happen all that often. I wonder, why were the rivers dammed in the first place if there are cultural ties to them?
I think it’s so interesting to learn about how the rivers are very important to the Maori people. It’s sad to hear about the rivers being taken away from them without their consent. When did taking away the rivers from the Maori people start? It’s amazing to hear how the Maori people tried to achieve justice for their waters behind a huge dam. Do you think that if the power companies were to communicate with the Maori people before taking the water without consent, there would have been a different outcome to building the dams? Overall, I’m glad to hear that the water flows are being returned to the rivers and the dams are getting opened to let some water through. Thank you for sharing this article, Matthew!
This reality for the Maori people is extremely sad. Water can be so culturally significant depending on where a peoples live and the importance water plays in their life as well as spiritual beliefs. Fortunately though, this instance seems to have had a positive result because both sides came to the table ready to figure it out and compromise, showing the power of coming together. Hopefully the agreements last longer than 2017 and the Maori people continue to be represented in the power company’s choices.
Sadly, I have noticed that Indigenous peoples have been ripped away from there land in other countries besides the United States. This angers me to think about how Indigenous people are not even close to being treated the way they should. I am glad that you are getting involved with the Maori people and the concerns within that community in New Zealand. Not only is this an important thing to do, due to the fact that people took away their land but more specifically this cause is very important as well. Water is a huge part of who we are and our land and to take that away to benefit our economy or towns is not worth the effort. Just like you explained the problem that the Maori people are having with the water being taken away for the dam that is planned to be built, the U.S is having a similar problem. Currently the Dakota access pipeline is trying to create a pipeline through North and South Dakota that will bring access to crude oil. The reasoning behind this is to create easier access to oil as well create jobs to increase the economy. The problem is that in order to make this happen this pipeline has to go through historical and sintmental land for Native Americans. Not only are they being ignored but they are being extremely disrespected and this is not okay.