Forest & Bird NZ: notes from the 35th annual conference

Zealandia_F&B conference
Around 100 branch members from around New Zealand, staff, supporters and speakers converged in Wellington on June 25, 2016 for the annual Forest and Bird Conference. The conference was an opportunity to gain insight into one of the largest and longest running environmental NGOs in NZ, and for me, to reconnect with folk whom I hadn’t seen for a while, as well as connect with fabulous new people too.

Unleashing youth potential to change the world
Guy Ryan, Young NZer of the Year, launched the conference by showing us what a lad from the remote West Coast town of Granity (pop c.216), can achieve when asking, ‘What can I do to make a difference?’ This question was prompted by making a 25 min documentary (via the Natural History Filmmaking course at Otago University) about inspirational New Zealanders themselves leading change. The Inspiring Stories website grew from this and includes Festival for the Future (a forum for networking young people across different disciplines, to share ideas and create positive action), and Live the Dream (a 9-week intensive accelerator programme for 18–30 y old Kiwis to develop social entrepreneurship and enterprise capability). Guy reminded the audience that energy needs to be directed to the 1 million NZers in this age group, to harness their energy – pertinent to sustaining Forest & Bird with its cohort of ageing members.

presentation_F&B conferenceUnderstanding youth engagement with climate change
Assoc. Professor Bronwyn Hayward (University of Canterbury) dissected how we dissent through using a rich array of examples both international (the Occupy movement) to local (protests of school closures). Her research categorises dissent into three forms, each with a different purpose, namely
Dutiful: Reforming policy by operating within existing systems and structures e.g., helping your university develop an ethical investment policy
Disruptive: Changing policy by contesting prevailing norms to disrupt ideas and practices e.g., protesting outside your local bank to halt unethical investments
Dangerous: Creating a paradigm shift by taking control and subverting power structures to mobilise citizens around new norms, values and visions. Examples include Parihaka, the Springbok tour and Greenpeace actions

Bronwyn put forward the ‘SEEDS’ model as a means for democratic citizenship. In this model, the key areas she and her colleagues research include Social agency, Environmental education, Embedded justice, Decentred democracy and Self transcendence values.

Volunteering for Nature, Volunteering for Science
My own presentation, took a different tack. I investigated the activities of nearly 300 community environmental groups (from a population of c.540 groups), and the critical role of volunteers in establishing groups, driving restoration projects and collecting data (i.e. citizen science). Interestingly, my PhD research showed that groups have not frames their restoration objectives as responding to climate change e.g., by enhancing landscape resilience – this was the subject of Geoff Keens’ presentation (see below)

New Zealand ranks highly in the World Giving Index – we’re 8th for volunteering our time. The 13-25 age-group is the fastest growing group of volunteers globally. But in determining the drivers of youth volunteerism (aside from e.g., stage of life, gender, whether they had a disability, cultural background and where they live), 2 findings from a recent Australian study (Wynne 2011) caught my eye:
• Young people were volunteering in ‘youth specific’ areas, alongside peers
• There was a lack of youth friendly information informing young people about volunteering

While young people mobilised rapid and effectively for crises in NZ (e.g., the Student Army in Christchurch tackling the aftermath of the earthquakes, and NZ’s worst maritime disaster, the grounding of the container ship Rena), the question still remains how youth can be engaged for the longer term.

On the subject of monitoring, groups’ often tally e.g., pest numbers trapped and plants in the ground. However, ‘outcome’ monitoring data (e.g., pest control monitoring PLUS bird counts) are needed to determine what these activities ultimately contribute to biodiversity conservation, both regionally and nationally.

Overall, there are 3 things we do well in NZ: (1) individual groups have established powerful partnerships to implement and sustain their projects; (2) take ownership of, and drive change in landscape management from the bottom up, and (3) protect iconic species such as kiwi and whio. However, there are a further 3 areas where improvement is needed: (4) encourage greater collaboration between groups; (5) build groups’ science capacity, and (6) facilitate groups to collect data strategically.

Youth panel_F&B conference
Future Leaders’ Forum
Jinty MacTavish, (quite possibly NZ’s most youthful City Councillor) chaired a dynamic panel of Sir Peter Blake Trust finalists: Isabella Lenihan-Ikin, Sedef Duder-Ozyurt, Jessica Jenkins, Raven Maeder,Tim Rutherford, Shannon Williams. What interested me was that most had come from environmentally aware families. All were passionate and highly articulate speakers. Each already had achieved considerable kudos for their environmental activities among their peers, and the overriding message was that inspire and encourage youth to act, then youth are the best mobilisers – not oldies telling the young ones what to do. And treating volunteers to food is always welcome.

The global and local of climate change
Geoff Keey discussed the implications of climate change and promoted the F&B roadshow to the different branches. He framed climate change impacts as the need to create more resilient landscapes through ecological restoration initiatives.

Engaging with Northland iwi
Dean Baigent-Mercer holds a unique position in Forest & Bird as an advocate in Northland where landownership is both highly contested and infinitely complex. Aerial application of the toxin 1080 (sodium fluoroacetate) to control brushtail possum numbers largely ceased in the 90s, and has led to widespread forest collapse. The canopy is littered with the skeletal remains of tōtara, northern rātā, pūriri and pōhutukawa. Dean showed that entrenched opinions can be turned around with practical evidence (in the form of pest control on his own, and neighbour’s Northland properties) as well as drone footage that graphically demonstrated the extent of browsing damage. He also underscored what is needed to support the evidence: persistence, patience, empathy and excellent communication skills. Finally, collaboration between DOC, iwi, charities and the regional council has overcome negativity toward the use of 1080, and resulted in Warawara forest (Hokianga) being treated to save the forest.

Shining a torch into the darkness: The Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary
Anton van Helden (WWF Marine Advocate, also Magician, Entertainer and of course Marine Mammal expert) provided the perfect end to the evening with a blend of humour and insight, illustrated by cartoon marine mammals (his own), about why the Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary is necessary. Complex interactions we know about only because someone has undertaking a particular area of study; equally there are many areas that still require studying as well as species (e.g., some marine mammals) who remain barely visible and therefore barely known. Although the National Geographic regards the Kermadecs as near pristine (owing to their isolation), Anton reminded us of the heavy toll that historic whaling had on the region.

My final three thoughts: the culture of well-established organisations such as Forest & Bird differs radically from youth-driven initiatives; addressing wicked problems such as climate change by Forest & Bird will require embedding resilience thinking into restoration practice; meaningful advocacy must be based on knowledge gained through detailed research and experience. As for where citizen science may enrich the picture… well, answering this is where I will continue to devote my efforts and expertise.

Finally, with the organisation changing leadership as CEO Hone McGregor steps down, seems an opportune time for Forest & Bird to reassess, realign and realise new goals.

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