Nature’s work

How Jobs for Nature helped one community bring its ecological visions to life, for a while.

There was this moment back in 2023 when Aimee Hampton locked eyes with a ruru. It swooped into the cool dark canopy, gracefully navigating the forest tangle, and landed on a branch nearby. The discs of its yellow eyes calmly stared back at her. She was mesmerised.

When she told the locals down the road at Rāpaki, the old folks were surprised. No one had seen a ruru in the area in years, they said. In te ao Māori, ruru are kaitiaki, watchful protectors of the ngahere. But, by the early twentieth century, the hills of Whakaraupō Lyttelton Harbour had lost around 99% of their forest cover. Until recently, there just wasn’t much ngahere for the ruru to watch over.

Jobs for Nature (JfN ) was launched in 2020 as part of the COVID-19 recovery package. The model, which echoed some of the government-led Public Works initiatives run during the Great Depression (unemployed men, for example, worked on the road from Te Anau to Milford Sound), aimed to help workers impacted by the pandemic find jobs in conservation.

As then-conservation minister Eugenie Sage explained, “this investment in nature will not only support thousands of people with jobs but pay dividends for generations to come by giving nature a helping hand.” This would include protecting and restoring indigenous biodiversity and habitats, helping with revegetation of both private and public conservation land, clearing waterways of invasive weeds, and undertaking riparian planting.

By the end of 2023, the scheme had employed 13,350 people. Outcomes from JfN projects included 2.5 million additional hectares of land under animal pest control, the construction of 5000 kilometres of fencing, and 10.5 million native plants put in the ground. In total, Jobs for Nature invested $1.2 billion in te taiao (the natural world).

On the day she saw the bird, Aimee was checking her trapline in a valley of regenerated bush in Whakaraupō Lyttelton Harbour. Ruru, like so many of our beleaguered native animals, are under the pump from rats, stoats, possums and cats who prey on chicks and eggs. Aimee and the other Kaimahi for Nature field officers each ran a trapline in the forest, trying to relieve the pressure from predators. Perhaps this ruru came to remind her and the team what their hard mahi was really about.

For Aimee, the bird was proof that the trapping was working. Native species were starting to return.

Aimee was part of a twenty-strong field team employed by Kaimahi for Nature (KfN) Whakaraupō – one of the largest Jobs for Nature projects in Te Waipounamu. The project was run by Te Hapū o Ngāti Wheke, with Living Springs and Conservation Volunteers New Zealand (CVNZ) as the delivery partners. Living Springs worked their swathe of land at the head of the harbour, while CVNZ ran a crew out of Rāpaki, a Māori settlement a few bays around from Lyttelton. Both teams regularly helped out on other local properties within the harbour.

From mid-2021 until March 2024, KfN Whakaraupō employed 30 people, looked after 2200 hectares of land, planted more than 75,000 native eco-sourced trees, shrubs and grasses, and weeded, trapped, fenced and tracked thousands of hectares of land. Altogether, the project received $4.5 million in funding from JfN. And with the hapū at the helm, the project took a mātauranga Māori approach to conservation mahi. The cultural restoration of the harbour was just as central as the ecological restoration.

Whakaraupō is one of those places that breeds a fierce sort of loyalty. Despite the lack of forest on the hills, the landscape tugs at you. The land and water are in constant conversation – the limestone outcrops, volcanic peaks, the dark folds of regenerating gullies of the whenua, the steely grey of the moana in the winter, glinting and turquoise in the summer.

For mana whenua, Te Hapū o Ngāti Wheke, this love and connection for the harbour is centuries old. The harbour beckoned to their voyaging ancestors. After navigating the fierce southerlies that batter the open seas of the east coast, Whakaraupō was a paradise of kai and shelter. For those who settled permanently and those who came and went, the land and sea were mahinga kai – a food source that sustained life.

Nowadays, alongside the pride in their beautiful whenua, there’s also sadness about the state of the natural environment.

Growing up in Rāpaki, Hēmi Korako (Te Hapū o Ngāti Wheke, Ngāi Tahu) and his whānau would load their table with kaimoana – pipi and cockles from the foreshore, fish from the sea. But it’s been a long time since they dined like that. “The water quality has degraded so much, everything has just died off,” Hēmi says. “The rock pools are full of mud and algae. It just shows the imbalance of everything.”

When Hēmi was offered a job as a Field Officer on the KfN Whakaraupō project, he jumped at the chance. Working to restore his whenua has lit a fire under him: “I found this job and found a true sense of purpose. Because [this project is] mana whenua led, it’s putting the responsibility back into the hands of the people who know how to take care of the whenua.”

One of the most significant achievements for the Rāpaki-based crew was planting alongside the Ōmaru Stream, which runs from the top of the valley behind Rāpaki to the beach below. Water quality testing has shown high levels of nitrates in the water. The hope is that the growing plants will help filter out pollutants and improve the freshwater.

At the head of the harbour, the team at Living Springs have also noticed huge benefits from the Jobs for Nature funding. Field Officer Daniel Ho says, “When you take a walk in the forest compared to two years ago, you can tell the difference – the bird life is much better. It’s a quality-of-life improvement for everyone around here.”

Living Springs is a multifaceted place. While it is most well-known as a school camp and conference venue, it also boasts a working farm and its own stretch of remnant native bush, including one 800-year-old kahikatea tree that towers above the canopy. With so little indigenous forest left in Whakaraupō, the trees in Living Springs and other remnant forests are valuable seed sources for regeneration projects like KfN’s. Seeds collected from mature trees in these forests stand the best chance of survival because they are uniquely adapted to the harbour ecosystem.

Working on the Living Springs field team has been a fantastic experience for Daniel: “It’s been awesome to get my hands dirty and be part of the solution.”

Anna Colombus, the Project Manager for the Living Springs Kaimahi team, has seen the huge impact the three years of funding has had. “The Jobs for Nature funding has meant we could bring our ecological visions to life – what might have taken us ten years to achieve has only taken 2.5 years,” Anna explains. It’s been surprising just how quickly native species have returned, too. Anna grew up just around the corner from Living Springs. “When I was a kid, if we saw a kererū, we would have thought it was incredible. And now it’s like, ‘those old things’. I see them all day, every day.”

Te taiao does not know about three-yearly election cycles or annual budgets or cost-benefit ratios, but our world does. A Labour Party-led initiative, Jobs for Nature irked groups like the New Zealand Taxpayers’ Union, who, true to form, called it a “wasteful slush fund”, and it was scrapped when the new National-led coalition took power. Gone by lunchtime, as they say. Without secure funding, Kaimahi for Nature Whakaraupō, like so many other Jobs for Nature initiatives around the country, downed tools in March of 2024. Some work will continue, but much of it will rely, once again, on short-term grants and the goodwill of volunteers.

Back in the cool of the bush, the ruru keep watch. The insistent cheep cheep of a pīwakawaka follows me as I meander up the valley track. There’s no question this forest is special. You can almost see the mycelial threads connecting people to the whenua. And you can feel the mauri of the ngahere. The forest is eager to recloak the land. It’s just waiting for us.

WORDS: Lily Duval, with Laura Williamson

PHOTOS: Heba Mashhour