The Role of Spirit in Environmental Activism

Reprinted from The Common Good, No 42, Spring 2007

By Liz Remmerswaal Hughes

 Three years ago I became engrossed in a colossal battle to protect the historic Cape Kidnappers on the East Coast of the North Island. Land adjacent to the cliff face had been earmarked for development by an extraordinarily wealthy North American businessman, Julian Robertson, who owns several large farms, golf courses and vineyards around New Zealand. This development had been sanctioned by the Hastings District Council, contrary to its district plan, which had designated a small strip zoned for protection as an ‘Outstanding Natural Feature’.

I took an active role in spearheading the diverse team we assembled to fight this and I knew we would be challenged to the max. From the outset our fledgling group, made up of Maori and Pakeha, decided to adopt the protocol of opening and closing our meetings with a prayer or karakia, or simply silence, lead in turn by members of the group. This practice ensured that we acknowledged and accessed a higher power or spirit, which enabled us to carry on undaunted in the face of incredible opposition. We also had very few ego problems, plus a natural ebb and flow of people to support us during the long year of campaign.

 Our mission was to raise enough money to take the council to the Environment Court and so we had to raise public awareness and find around $30,000 to pay the lawyer.

Initially people thought we were crazy. “Money talks…” they said darkly.

The first thing we decided to do was inspired by the example of a young, single 17th century Quaker woman, Mary Fisher, who visited the Sultan of Turkey to sue for peace. We arranged a meeting with Mr Robertson and his wife to tell him directly of our concerns and try and avoid going to court. We were also anxious that the Robertsons understood that we were motivated by a strong feeling for the Cape with its important spiritual, archaeological, geological and historical significance, and not by malice. I think I always felt a little that the Robertsons also had been let down by the council, as they had done their best to comply with requirements.

It has to be said that the media played an important role in this process, publishing stories on the process of negotiation. The media should never be overlooked when dealing with battles like this as councils are very susceptible to public opinion and the squeaky wheel principle works! However, we eventually ended up in court. Our side won, and the rest as they say is history.

 Our faith was restored in the much maligned Resource Management Act and the pristine face of the beautiful Cape is intact – for now. Attempts to protect it for perpetuity have so far proved unsuccessful, but are being worked on. The lodge was relocated to a more sheltered and pleasant spot on the property. Even the owners admitted later that we had done them a favour and we have gone down in the annals of local history as a classic David and Goliath success story. And to cap off our success story, one of our leading members, Rod Heaps, was elected as a regional district councillor while the case was still in court!

 ‘Baywatch’-the pressure group

Not content to rest on our laurels, and tired of conflict, some of us regrouped to form an environmental umbrella group called Baywatch-Nga Kaitiaki O Nga Taonga O Tuku Iho. We wanted to work positively and pro-actively to influence decisions at the outset. At our meetings we have continued the tradition of beginning with karakia. Again it brings us together, focussing, sharing the moment and transforming us. I’m sure it helps us with the magnitude of difficult tasks we are taking on. In Baywatch, we try to work with and respect our bicultural origins and work in harmony with tangata whenua, the original and longstanding guardians/kaitiaki of Aotearoa. It gives a deeper and harmonious connection to the land as well as a wealth of tradition and knowledge that is priceless.

 Contemporary kiwi culture seems somewhat hostile to spirituality, certain forms in particular. While in Maoridom it is an integral part of protocol to acknowledge those who have gone before, and the life force ‘Tihei Mauri ora’, the strength that this gives to community has not yet been fully understood in the wider culture.

Incorporating karakia into Pakeha settings is sometimes deemed both politically correct while at the same time is slammed by political opponents as weakness. Using Maori in a political setting is apparently not good for the polls. It seems odd to me, though, that a karakia might be acceptable in a public setting while a plain ordinary prayer in English might not. I think many of the public would like to have something in both languages! And we certainly do need it more than ever.

 As an activist and a Christian, and having seen for myself the power of the uniting force that prayer can bring, I do so unashamedly whenever the spirit moves. For example, when I was asked to talk at a water protest meeting in Christchurch earlier this year, I felt brave enough and was encouraged to ask those assembled to join me in singing a lovely old gospel number “When I went down to the river to pray”, which we did. It was lovely. The demise of institutional religion today has also meant that there is very little singing and so we lose chances for the lovely uplifting feeling it produces.

Why don’t we all reclaim and share this power for good lest it suffers the fate of being buried treasure for another generation?

Liz Remmerswaal Hughes is a Hawke’s Bay environmental activist and mother who dabbles in journalism and painting. She is a co-founder of HB Restorative Justice Inc, Cape Kidnappers Protection Society-Te Matau O Maui and Baywatch Environment Group-Nga Kaitiaki O Nga Taonga O Tuku Iho.

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