Pathways to Transition

Taking Up the Tono: Practical, Possible, Unstoppable?

After eight years of innovative, mission-critical science, Our Land and Water’s final two-day symposium in May 2024 marked the end of the Challenge and the beginning of a new stage in the ongoing journey to create the future of land use in Aotearoa.

After eight years of innovative, mission-critical science, Our Land and Water’s final two-day symposium in May 2024 marked the end of the Challenge and the beginning of a new stage in the ongoing journey to create the future of land use in Aotearoa. Most importantly, the participants committed to continuing the journey of collaboration.

Change is unstoppable

“System change needs a catalyst, and Mother Nature is screaming at us.” — Tina Porou

We know change is coming and coming fast. Extreme weather events are increasing. International pressure is mounting. Consumers in some export markets are using their purchasing power to demand change, and more stringent regulatory requirements in the EU may set the direction for other key markets.

Achieving our water quality goals will be harder and more expensive than achieving our target greenhouse gas reductions, said Rich McDowell – but it is possible, and one modelling exercise showed the cost of doing so is less than 1 percent of the export value of our primary sector.

While there was discussion of how to balance economic development and being good ancestors, there were also many calls for systems change to bring about a balance for Te Taiao. Tina Porou spoke of her visit to the Yurok tribe in California who have been successful in removing hydroelectric dams from the Klamath River, their traditional waterway. After only a few months, salmon are returning and thriving.

“It took 20 years of activism and work to pull together science to show that it was more expensive to create fishways than to blow up the dams. Vision requires inspiration, but with that we can do anything.” — Tina Porou

Revitalisation is possible

“At the bottom of our land is a waterway that’s been fenced off for 20 years. It’s revitalising now, it has native bush around it and macro-invertebrates in the water, and it’s safe to swim.” — Mandy Bell

Research has now proven that on-farm mitigation actions work. However, it takes a long time to detect change. There was a call for more strategic monitoring to provide confidence for farmers to continue to implement effective mitigation actions.

Revitalisation is, however, not just about land and water. We also need to revitalise farming communities who are in distress. Many farmers are physically, emotionally, and financially drained. They need pathways that are financially viable along with some optimism and opportunity. After all, as Denise Beswell said, when we’re thinking about change, we’re really thinking about people and their decisions.

“The best way of getting change is multiple ways of getting change. Not all will work, but several will and that will help.” — Denise Beswell

We must also acknowledge the pain caused by colonisation and the fear many hapū carry of losing what they have managed to recapture.

“We had an awful lot to learn because of our lack of Te Tiriti understanding as a generation. Now we are standing on the land and understanding the history, which allows us to create the futureTangata Whenua and Tangata Tiriti together.” — Mandy Bell

An intergenerational focus is practical

“Water has a right to exist independently of humans and has its own right to survive and thrive. Te Mana o Te Wai is a principle and a value sourced from mātauranga Māori, but it is universal. Māori cannot be the only ones standing up for Te Mana o Te Wai. I expect you to do your jobs too. We cannot be on our own holding back the tide that affects all our grandchildren.” — Tina Porou

Our concern for what we are leaving for the generations to come is leavened by the hope provided by the rangitahi coming forward. These young people can weave together knowledge systems and diverse viewpoints in ways that will change and fix the systems we are leaving them. It is important to have the skills and tools they carry with them included in our projects.

Values can drive wider change

“We can’t keep being transactional, as Aotearoa will lose its values that way. We are not ingredient suppliers, we are high value story providers.” — Caroline Saunders

If one thing united the participants of the symposium it was passion for the fundamental treasures of our country: our land, water, and associated ecosystems. Many participants also have a stake in producing value from those same taonga. Surveys tell us that urban New Zealanders trust farmers as individuals, so perhaps it is the food production system as a whole that needs questioning.

The existing economic value chain needs to widen to include social, environment and cultural value. If we can better encapsulate this value, it will incentivise producers to make choices that lead to better outcomes. We need to reframe good environmental outcomes as investment with long-term returns in a manner that is supported by financial and political systems.

“You can’t chunk Te Taiao down into bits and sell the bits.” — James Turner

Trust and relationships are central

“Trust each other – if we can’t trust ourselves and each other, we can’t create change.” — Renee Kahukura Iosefa

Integral to future research is connection and trust between diverse groups of people. For Tangata Tiriti the message was clear. We need to make a connection before providing content. As Lee Matheson put it, ‘we’re not bringing [people] a solution, we’re just bringing another element to the conversation’.

When working with farmers, iwi and hapū, we also need to acknowledge that a lot of these communities have been, as Paul Voigt said, ‘let down time and time again’. Relationships must therefore start by rebuilding trust. Showing up, doing the dishes, listening, and reporting back are basic but valuable human interaction skills.

Starting by ‘scaling deep’, as James Turner put it, forms profound relationships with those who understand the land, its whakapapa and physical qualities. This has been a valued learning journey for many involved in the Challenge. Even with the end of Challenge funding, the commitment to keep relationships strong was palpable.

“Keep your relationships alive and healthy because we will need them again.” — Sue Bidrose

Community is the beating heart

“We can only regulate so far. We can see where mandated change has got us, it can solve one problem but create another five. We have to rely on communities innovating and making decisions, both good and bad.” — Lee Matheson

As Jess Berentson-Shaw mentioned, scientists are taught that achievements are individual. However, if we understand the goals we share, we can come together and build movements. Communities need to be brought in, as Renee Iosefa said, so we can listen and weave in their needs, questions, and requests, giving them a place to stand.

Catchment groups were referred to as ‘the bees knees’ by Aimee Blake, ‘vital’ by John Burke, and ‘a Petrie dish for change’ by an audience member. These groups are community-led, location-specific and outcomes-focused.

Catchment groups featured as a channel to tackle many issues: becoming financial players, envisioning the future, bringing together vast amounts of data, connecting and training farmers. However, there was also a reminder that all catchment groups are different and have varying abilities, resources, challenges. [Our Land and Water will prepare a separate summary of symposium insights on catchment groups.]

“We can look at the catchment as a whole and provide a foundation of values and a commitment to achieving our community’s vision of an ideal future. As a group, we’re about minimising silos and embodying what interconnected looks like.” — Mandy Bell

Communicate or stagnate

“Knowledge is power. Knowledge shared is power multiplied.” — Kati Doehring (quoting economist Robert Boyce)

We learned that trustworthy sources act as change agents. The people that farmers trust most are other high-achieving farmers. If we share the success of farmers who are leading and succeeding, we help farmers further down the bell-curve of change. The best results occur when engagement is transparent and occurs as early as possible.

For Māori, wānanga are the key to connection, inspiration, and support and ensure robust impact.

“We don’t have time any more for long-term research that is disconnected from the practice.” — Tina Porou

Across the board, trust is low in online sources, central and local government, media, and those with commercial interests. It is possible however to reframe problematic ways of viewing others into helpful mindsets. There is also a lesson here for farmers about how they communicate about what they produce.

“How you farm and the way you tell your story and getting that into the hands of consumers is crucial.” — Tiffany Tompkins

A national scale doesn’t connect

Scientists have worked hard to provide consistent national-scale methodologies and models. This work is vital to ensure a level playing field in measurement and monitoring. However it is communities, hapu, families, and individuals who must make decisions about their land and catchments.

“The idea there are national models for this is a myth. We are reflections of the geography we were raised in.” — Tina Porou

The tools and levers developed through Our Land and Water need to be brought through to an individual farm level to create change.

We have targets that require collective action, but individual farmers still need to pay their mortgages. One of the challenges for modelling catchment-scale change is the creation of ‘winners and losers’. Lee Matheson’s model of scenarios for future land-use found optimising for an individual property’s future created different outcomes to those created by optimising at a catchment level.

Our Land and Water research has created understanding of where land-use is misplaced but, as John Burke stated, there is little will to acknowledge this. Without alternative revenue, those who do not have viable farms will be placed in an impossible position and the communities that surround them will be impacted.

“If communities identify their values, vision and plan for the next 50 years, we have the tools to identify what needs to change and understand where the best place is for the best land use.” — John Burke

Using good tools aids good decisions

“Most farmers are already thinking about the kinds of land use change they might need to de-risk. We need to provide information that is both sophisticated and integrated and allows people to choose how to change.” — Lee Matheson

Providing data and information is key in promoting informed decision-making. People also need proof that their actions are having an impact, or this can result in inaction and paralysis. As Aslan Wright-Snow put it, ‘confidence is needed to make change’.

Our Land and Water has created a wide range of tools to inform decisions at national, regional, catchment, and farm level. However many of these frameworks and tools are not created for farmers to ‘just run with’, as Tanira Kingi said.

Understanding new and different sorts of land uses requires a range of technologies, understanding, skills and training. Aimee Blake’s research showed many farmers are struggling with overwhelm because of the amount of information available. Clear communication to those who will use the research is vital.

“Can we come up with a tried and tested recipe to get to a profitable farm where the right outcomes are a byproduct of that recipe?” — Audience member

Keep on swimming!

“Our leading farmers lighthouse farmers – are already doing it. They can teach us a hell of a lot. They are fleet of foot and already where NZ needs to be in 20 years’ time follow our lighthouses.” — Alison Dewes

From ancient times, piharau from the puna of Rangariri in Hawaiki have travelled Aotearoa’s waterways, swimming upstream across great distances. This symposium was named for the whakatauaki that honours the determination, persistence, and endurance of this taonga species: He Manawa Piharau.

The current shake-up of the science and science funding system is an opportunity to move further towards collaboration and innovation. Over 1000 people who have been involved in Our Land and Water projects are now more skilled in working both inside and outside a traditional science system to develop research with practical impact. There is a growing swell of researchers and communities who understand the effectiveness of this way of working to support the changes needed for Aotearoa to thrive in an uncertain future.

“Unless someone cares an awful lot, it’s not going to change, it’s not.” — Dr Seuss, The Lorax

The symposium ended with the promise that those involved in the challenge will not lose the heart of what we’ve learned and what knits us together.

Kia ora te wai, kia ora te whenua. Kia ora te whenua, kia ora te tangata.

Video from the Symposium will be available in June, with podcasts out in July/August. Two reports based on stakeholder insights from the event are also planned.


Ceridwyn Roberts

Ceridwyn Roberts is a freelance science communicator (

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