Category Archives: Social ecology

Essays in Social Permaculture – using natural succession

I recently attended an amazing waananga just outside Whāngarei, at a place called Permadynamics. It was run by Klaus Lotz and Frida Keegan on the subject of syntropic polyculture. That sounds complicated but basically syntropic is the opposite of entropic: it means a system which becomes more ordered. Polyculture is the opposite of monoculture, and refers to a diverse and deeply interconnected cropping system. The particular polyculture at Permadynamics is anchored around the banana, and Klaus is the biggest commercial banana grower in Aotearoa.

The system was first developed by Ernst Gotsch. As far as I know he hadn’t heard of permaculture when he first established its principles, but it meshes perfectly with permaculture thinking. I fully recommend searching the web for his videos and writings. He developed his system in South America where he was a farm advisor working with people trying to make a living from highly degraded land. This was land that had been rainforest, had been logged, and then cash cropped for a few years until there was no soil left. Finally it was abandoned and then occupied by some of the poorest people in the region.

Ernst realised that attempting to grow high value crops without bringing the land back to health first was pointless. He also realised that the land was already in a process of rehabilitating itself. Those prickly thorns and nasty weeds that kept coming up where people were trying to farm were actually playing an important ecological function. They were beginning the process of rebuilding the soil. Left to itself the whole area would simply return to rainforest. Instead of trying to arrest the natural succession that was already taking place, with poison and back breaking work, he realised he could accelerate and shape it.

Instead of trying to eradicate weeds, Ernst identified the most useful ones and sowed them. He interplanted with whatever crops might survive – obtaining at least some kind of yield for the growers – and used heavy slashing to mulch and keep the ground covered. Over time this strategy built enough soil to move to the next stage of succession, where perennials and semi-perennials could be introduced with higher value crops. Ultimately it moves to a system of forest farming that is probably not very different from traditional indigenous practices.

Succession itself is complex and multi-layered and this brief inadequate explanation does not do it justice. It takes seeing it working in action, at places like Permadynamics. Seeing the deep soils that have been grown on very steep clay banks with no topsoil when they began, and hearing the narrative as we walked through this incredible sub-tropical forest full of food.

I see the same thing taking place on my land. There is an area of slip, where the ground is bare, with no soil and deep, rapid scouring. The only plants able to hold on there are gorse and pampas grass. I have been learning not to panic about these invasive plants because in other places I can see where kānuka is already coming through them, and starting to shade them out. Same for the blackberry. If I was to do nothing but watch I know that over time the whole area will go into kānuka, which will give way to other natives and exotics and will eventually turn into forest.

I don’t work on forest timeframes though and human life is short. I am impatient and don’t want to wait that long. I also want the forest to provide for my family’s needs as much as possible, so I want to influence what grows, to accelerate and shape that succession. With that in mind I will plant a local variety of kōwhai, to fix nitrogen, build soil, to look beautiful and to feed local tui. I will collect kānuka seeds and sow them, to speed up the kānuka cover. I will plant some acacias, also to fix nitrogen, to feed bees and birds, to provide coppice wood for fires and handles and poles. Given how degraded the area is, I won’t ask more of it than that for now. It is not capable, for example, of growing fruit trees and anyway I want those closer to the house. So I will just let the birds take it from there and watch and learn as nature transforms it. As Gotsch says, ‘we think we are intelligent, but we are just part of an intelligent system”.
I was pondering Klaus’ approach to weeds while clearing out my spring. When a weed turns up in his food forest, he does not say “arrgh a weed, we must get rid of it”. He welcomes it as a friend, and seeks to understand what it’s function is. He doesn’t just leave it to do it’s thing, rather he prunes it heavily to use as drop mulch and build soil. He doesn’t allow it to flower and seed (and talks about other benefits to the overall system in keeping it at a juvenile stage), but he doesn’t try to eradicate it. It is a valuable source of biomass.

Occasionally there is something that is genuinely looking to take over but that is rarely the case. Usually a weed is there to help move succession along. Once it has played its role, the conditions that it came for will no longer be there, so it will leave. Most weeds are only a problem if you are trying to artificially maintain your land at a lower level of succession, for example by trying to prevent grassland from becoming forest.

Similarly David Holmgren, when explaining the principle of ‘observe and interact’ says that ‘there is no right and wrong in nature’. If we apply that thinking to society, to some of the spontaneous manifestations of human culture that cause such general consternation, we can maybe start to find better ways to approach them.

Gangs are a very good example. Gangs are something that politicians have generally treated as weeds to eradicate. Like gorse in a paddock, they have done everything they can to get rid of them. They have tried to ban them, threaten them, and police them out of existence. Only rarely have they tried to understand the social function that gangs play, why they arose in the first place. Rather than try to arrest natural succession, like poisoning gorse on a degraded slope, perhaps if we try to accelerate it we might have better outcomes.

New Zealand gangs started as a very human response to alienation. Alienation comes with poverty and lack of status. For many Māori, alienation came with the killing of their rangatira, the theft of their land and economic base, and the subsequent urban drift. It left people cut off from their kin and the most important expressions of their culture.

The worst of the gangs arose out of the extreme alienation from society that resulted from institutionalised rape, abuse and torture in state care. At the start of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in State Care, I remember listening to an interview on the radio. It was one of the guys that had been kidnapped from his family as a young boy by the NZ Government and put into a home. It is no coincidence that most of those boys were Māori. In ‘care’ he was sexually and violently abused. Repeatedly. He was shoved from one abusive place to another until he turned 18 when he was turned out onto the street with nothing. No one cared about what happened to him, not a soul, except for the other kids who had been through the same. They joined together, like a family of sorts. If the world didn’t care about them then they didn’t give a fuck about the world. But they did care for each other, whatever that meant for people whose only ‘care’ had been abuse. Is it a surprise that many of those boys became our most violent criminals?

Now a man, he spoke about a judge sentencing him for some crime or another, talking to him with disgust and contempt about how he needed to come out of the gang life. He said to the interviewer “you locked every door to me. I am not welcome anywhere in your world. The only door that was opened to me was the gang. Why would I give that up?”

People need social connection almost as much as they need food. The gangs became a way of bonding, of forming connections both social and economic. Alienation was the ground that they sprung up from. To try to stamp them out with force is simply adding to that alienation, degrading the already degraded conditions that give rise to them in the first place. Like trying to burn gorse, whose seeds germinate in fire. Or worse, clearing the ground they have covered to make way for something even more rampant.

Gangs thrive in areas where people, especially young people, have few options for participating in legal society. Given growing inequality in New Zealand and the diminishing of opportunities for many young people, it is no wonder than gang membership is growing. Worryingly we are starting to see more of an influx of more violent criminal gangs from overseas. If we want to see gangs on the decline we need to improve the soil in which they arise, to make it richer, healthier, more structured, more full of life. And we need to recognise how the gangs themselves might help do that.
I work in a community and ecological restoration project in Whakatāne called Awatapu Otamakaokao Kaitiaki Trust. One of the driving forces behind that is a bunch of guys who have been or still are actively involved with Black Power. That is where they come from. That is their friends and family. Leaving that entirely is impossible for many of them, and why would they?

But they don’t want their children to go through what they went through, to live the lives that they have lived. They are the ones now organising the local Christmas in the Park, learning mau rākau, planting baumea and carex in lagoon mud.72538974_10156654823321717_8735450149867749376_n

Permaculture works with nature – and that must mean human nature as much as tree nature. Civilisations rise and fall but people’s nature remains invariably the same – socially cooperative and primed to seek connection and belonging. Humans by-and-large care about other people and care what other people think of us. But our natures can get distorted by our life experience. We can become so bound up in our peer group that we lose our sense of our place in the wider ecosystem. Yet the drive to provide a better life for our children is a common human trait. Left to our own devices I think even the most distorted social conditions will revert to equilibrium over enough generations. But as with our landscapes, we do not want to wait. We want to accelerate the natural succession, to speed up the journey towards system health.

This doesn’t mean being naive to what gangs can be. The opposite, in fact. If you are using gorse for a nurse crop and for mulch you need to pay special attention to the thorns. But it does mean recognising what is coming through underneath. It does mean feeding the soil and enriching it, pruning and mulching. An example might be to put seized proceeds of crime into the communities that give rise to gangs rather than into the consolidated fund. Or to put a much stronger focus on feeding those communities with education, work opportunity and community building initiatives rather than just more policing. It does also mean supporting, in practical terms, efforts within the gang communities themselves to change

Politicians will do more harm than good if they continue to try to eradicate gangs without understanding what gives rise to them and the social function they play. Most importantly, we have to be better at paying attention to and supporting the direction of the natural succession already taking place, that Government policies are so often antagonistic to.

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Why I am standing in local elections

Whakatāne is a spectacular place with a great community, and it’s been an honour serving on our Council since 2016. Like any community around the country we face some serious challenges – but also exciting opportunities. By becoming more sustainable, more resilient and more regenerative, we both prepare for those challenges and make the most of our opportunities. What that means locally is reducing our resource use, building our capacity to adapt to change, and enhancing natural ecosystems where ever we can.

Since my election three years ago the Whakatāne District Council (WDC) is starting to take these issues more seriously. The Climate Change Steering Committee, which I chair, is only new, but it is driving that change.

Sustainability

We know that reducing greenhouse gas emissions is vital. The Climate Change committee has measured council emissions and begun reducing them. For example, we have to earthquake strengthen the Civic Centre because it is the Civil Defence HQ in any disaster. This is a great opportunity to make it more energy efficient at the same time. I also expect to see solar PV panels on at least some of our public buildings starting this term. All of this will have long term cost savings as well as environmental benefits.

We have developed a set of Climate Change Principles to make sure all future decision-making takes climate change into account. This is about reducing emissions and preparing for the impacts of global warming. Those have been out for consultation, and the community has been overwhelmingly supportive.

We are moving towards more electric and hybrid vehicles. It is not just changing vehicles, but changing how we use them. Even more, the Active Whakatāne Strategy is about supporting people in council and the community to get out of their cars and in to other transport modes, which has environmental, health, safety, and economic benefits. That ties to disability access too. If it works for mobility scooters and wheel chairs it will work for pedestrians and others as well.

Resilience

We face big infrastructure challenges, such as the ‘three waters’ (drinking water, waste water / sewerage, and storm water). It’s big money. How we did things in the past won’t always be good enough today, so we have to do things better. Climate change adds huge pressure on top of that. Councils all across the country face these same issues and so being able to talk to Central Government is critical. It is helpful to have councillors who know their way around the Beehive and who have good relationships with key ministers.

It is not just about hard infrastructure though. Just as important for resilience is strong communities. The Edgecumbe flood demonstrated that very clearly. As well as pipes and asphalt, we need to be able to to work with communities to understand and support their aspirations and build connections. The work I have done with Whakatāne Ki Mua, with Greenprint for Whakatāne (while helped spark both Waste Zero Whakatāne, and the Food Sovereignty Network), and with Awatapu Otamakaukau Kaitiaki Trust are examples.

Collaborating with mana whenua is also important. It is about respecting local hapū and iwi. They have an intergenerational commitment to this place as kaitiaki and are important for the expertise and the resources they can bring to the table. The Whakatāne Regeneration Program is a nation-leading example of how Council can work with tangata whenua for the good of everyone.

Regenerative

Integrating nature into our solutions, such as wetlands for flood protection and water holding, is the way of the future. People talk about ‘Biophilic Design’ as a way to benefit people and nature and provide long term, low energy solutions to infrastructure problems. We need more of this kind of thinking. Council has great staff with great ideas but they need supportive political leadership who understand that we need to do things differently in the 21st century.

Becoming More Strategic

Tying it all together is the need for strategic prioritisation. The WDC is really good at leveraging money out of central government and out of funding bodies. The downside is that council can become too opportunistic. We can end up chasing the money. With the big challenges in front of us – and of course challenges are just opportunities to do things better – we have to be very disciplined about how we spend money. I don’t think this means just doing pipes and roads, the hard engineering stuff. We need to have a much more holistic understand of what helps communities thrive. But it does mean being very clear how our spending leads us towards our strategic priorities. We need to become very good at synergising activities to fulfil multiple functions where we can (permaculture thinking), and we have to be prepared to say “no” to things that may sound great and we can get some co-funding for, but which don’t lead to where we need to go.

This is a really important time in history. Council has a really important role to play. To do that it needs to have a clear strategy. Whoever you vote for, it is important to choose people who can see the big picture, who can exercise strong governance leadership, and who know how to get things done. Importantly we also need more diversity around the council table. A wider range of skills, and of life experiences, will lead to better decision-making.

Above all we need people with vision. Vote for me and make a difference.

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RESPONDING TO CLIMATE CHANGE IN WHAKATĀNE

This is an amazing moment in history. Young people, sick of seeing decades of denial, procrastination and evasion on climate change from political and business leaders are taking to the streets. School children are striking from school. Youth are organising direct action movements. People are demanding action.

They need to. Local Government New Zealand has drafted a Climate Change Declaration setting out some principles and aspirations for how local government can address the challenges of climate change. It is not radical – it asks councils to promote walking and public transport, improve resource efficiency and healthy homes and support renewable energy and electric vehicles. It recognises that local government needs to work with central government and with their communities.

Some 56 councils have signed but around 24 still refuse to do so. Thames-Coromandel Mayor Sandra Goudie says that the issue is ‘politically charged’  (because politics is anathema for a politician!). Meanwhile the West Coast Regional Council is opposing the Government’s Zero Carbon bill because “the evidence proving anthropogenic climate change must be presented and proven beyond reasonable doubt”. Apparently near unanimous agreement in the international scientific community is not sufficient.

Here in Whakatāne, climate change is already real for us. The flooding in Edgecumbe last year put our vulnerability to rising sea levels and increased storms into sharp focus. We know we can expect more of that. We know that the water table in the Rangitaiki Plains – once a wetland covering some 300km2 – is rising. A number of our people live under escarpments, along the coastline or clustered around our rivers. We have no room for complacency.

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Like much of local government, our council has been developing scattered pieces of work over the years, adjusting our district plan to incorporate climate change related hazards, but it has been piecemeal. There have been some attempts in the past to develop a Sustainability Strategy, but that never really went very far. What the organisation needed was more leadership at a political level, more strategic governance that recognises the real threat that climate change poses for our council and for our community. That leadership is now there.

Our Mayor, Tony Bonne, gets it. He signed the Mayors Declaration as soon as he found out about it. The issues of climate change and of sustainability are now being regularly raised around the council table, and not just by me. There is, I think, a strong acceptance around the table that climate change is real, that it poses a significant threat, and that we need to address it hand in hand with our communities.

In our organisation we are taking real steps. Our new CEO, Steph O’Sullivan, has a strong background understanding of climate change, of resilience and of partnering across communities, businesses and with the Crown. We have developed a high level Climate Change Steering Group with representation from senior leadership and with myself as the political representation. We have a Climate Change Project Team that has representation from the people that will be implementing our strategies. We are developing Climate Change principles based on the LGNZ declaration but drilling down into how they apply to our district, with input from across the organisation. The key thing about those principles is that they will flow through into decision-making across the organisation so that sustainability becomes embedded into decision-making rather than remaining a clip-on.

We have begun the process of bench-marking our own emissions so that we can improve and change, by signing up to the CEMARS programme. We have also done an energy audit to see where our bulk energy use is and how we can reduce it. That has given us a number of potential places where we can save money and reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. The next step is a more detailed investigation to see which of those possibilities might work in practice. This includes exploring the potential for adding solar generation to our buildings, which has highlighted that we need to address our approach to new public buildings and incorporate basic sustainable building design principles – something we have so far failed to do.

Council needs to address our own emissions, our own robustness (ability to withstand shocks), and our own resilience (ability to spring back from shocks). This is about showing leadership. Perhaps even more importantly, though, we need to be leading a deep discussion in our communities. Neither council nor government will ‘fix’ climate change. We can help or hinder but the most significant decisions will be made elsewhere. In this district, for example, the decisions around land use are critical both in terms of our emissions as a district and in terms of how we adapt to climate change. Council has an important role in making sure that people have good information when they make their own decisions about their homes, their businesses, their farms, their marae. We need community discussions that are non-judgemental, open and honest, and resourced with reliable information.

That process has begun, even though it has a long way to go. Whakatāne Ki Mua is the biggest community engagement that council has ever done, establishing a foundation for what the community wants for our communities. The GreenPrint forums have been exploring sustainability, resilience and regenerative design for our district and that has led to two community initiatives – Waste Zero and the Food Sovereignty network. A number of cool projects are being showcased during this months Sustainable Backyards which, for Whakatāne, is based out of Wharaurangi. In making that site available to Envirohub for the month, council has also committed to engaging our community around climate change, as the first step towards that deep discussion.

The horizon on climate change doesn’t stop in 2080 or 2100. The world will keep warming, oceans will keep rising, storms will keep getting stronger regardless of what we do. However we can influence how much worse it will get, for our children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. Imagine what our own great grandparents would say to us if we refuse to act now, when we know.

This isn’t about blame or judgement, it is about coming together to talk about how we are going to respond, collectively and individually, to this challenge. Most importantly it is about recognising climate change as an opportunity. Not for a few people to enrich themselves, but to genuinely change how we do things. We can create a future that is better than our past and present. By becoming genuinely sustainable and resilient, by building stronger community networks and looking out for each other, we can solve not just climate change but many of our other issues as well. Climate is just a symptom of a deeper problem. We have become disconnected from the rest of life and we have become disconnected from each other. The results are not just ecological but social, economic and cultural. Redesigning our way of life to put people and planet at the centre is worth doing regardless of climate change. Climate change is just the driver.

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My thoughts on 1080

I’m not pro-1080.
I don’t support banning it either.
I like to think I have a balanced approach. I think that ground control of invasive species like possums, rats and stoats is better and should be used where feasible. I also understand that it is not currently feasible in many places. This may be because of difficult access, dangerous terrain, or lack of people able and willing to do the trapping. Because those species are so destructive of our native ecosystems, I support the use of 1080 drops where ground control is not an option – at least until something better comes along.
But I am getting turned off by the behaviour of some people in the anti-1080 camp (and I say that because I don’t really see it coming much from the other side). The ones who don’t seem to care whether they are telling the truth. The ones who try to hijack every discussion and make it about 1080. Most of all, the ones getting viciously personal about anyone who disagrees with them. I know 1080 advocates who have spent their entire lives protecting native ecosystems and it makes me angry to see them being accused of hidden agendas, even more so when it is by keyboard warriors who barely step out of the house.
Not all anti-1080 people act like this. I’d be surprised if many of them didn’t feel the same way. I know plenty of people on both sides of the debate and the reality is most of them are good people who genuinely care about our land. They just disagree on this issue. That’s a good thing – it keeps us thinking. I just wish there was as much energy and focus for the real threat to our environment– intensive pastoral farming.
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Permaculture for a World in Transition

The term ‘permaculture’ was first coined in 1978 by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren and is a contraction of ‘permanent culture’. The basic qualification is the Permculture Design Certificate. Some of the practises and ideas that were once radical or groundbreaking have become widespread, both in food production (e.g. mulching gardens for soil conditioning and water retention) and increasingly in the sustainable business literature (many of the principles in The Blue Economy and in Natural Capitalism reflect permaculture thinking). Even so, permaculture as a whole-systems design approach still has much to offer to a world in transition.

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It is increasingly obvious that humans are at a crisis point. We have created a civilisation that is in fundamental conflict with the natural world. Our great environmental challenges, including climate change, water degradation, soil loss and mass extinction of species are all symptoms of this. The global economy, with its imperative for endless cumulative growth, is reaching the ecological boundaries of our planet. If we want to have a future where humans can thrive, we need to transform. We need to redesign our way of life to become deeply sustainable, creatively resilient and intrinsically regenerative.

Sustainability, Resilience and Regeneration
Being sustainable simply means being able to keep going indefinitely. Sustainability practises often focus on resource efficiency and the substitution of harmful materials, however the Jevons Paradox shows that highly efficient use of resources per unit can lead to increased net resource use. We must consciously address overall levels of consumption.
We need to also focus on resilience – the ability to recover from disruption and to bounce back – given an increasingly uncertain world. Resilience often comes from strategic redundancy, or having ‘fat’ in the system and is often in tension with strategies to make things stronger and more robust.

Regeneration recognises that sustainably managing a degraded environment is not enough. We have slashed so many strands of the web of life that we need to actively stitch it back together by enhancing ecological integrity wherever we can.

The basic premise of permaculture is that systems already exist which are sustainable, resilient and regenerative. These are natural systems. The more we can understand the processes by which natural systems unfold and develop and the more we can grasp the principles and characteristics of ecology, the more harmonious and life-sustaining our own systems can become.

Ethical principles
Permaculture begins with three ethical underpinnings: Earth Care, People Care and Fair Share. Earth Care recognises that we are part of the natural world and that in the most literal way our lives and our well-being derive from it. All of our systems must make provision for life systems to continue and multiply at all levels.
People Care is about creating systems that enhance our humanity. People are complex multi dimensional beings with an innate drive to create, to explore and to express ourselves. We are also social beings so healthy relationships with each other, with our kin, our community, our culture are all vital to our well-being.

Fair share, sometimes expressed as ‘share the surplus’ is an ethic of generosity. This is in contrast to the ethic of selfishness and accumulation which is at the heart of neoliberalism. Excessive accumulation and personal consumption leads to insecurity and instability and only by sharing resources more justly can we become genuinely sustainable. By being modest with our own consumption we can set resources aside to support the broader transformation needed.

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Design principles
Out of the permaculture ethics comes a series of design principles. They arise from the contemplation of nature, observation of indigenous and traditional practises and from science – in particular the sciences of ecology and of physics. There is no single definitive list of them, but David Holmgren’s 12 Design Principles are perhaps the best known and most cohesive articulation.
However, permaculture is not just about memorising a formula. It is more about understanding the underlying patterns that exist in nature and applying them to the specific circumstances. When we say design by nature, it is not a metaphor, but an acknowledgement that in any situation a set of self-organising forces already exist that we need to recognise and integrate with our own intent.

Permaculture, then, begins with thoughtful observation and interaction. When developing a property, permaculturists are encouraged to spend a year on their land before doing anything major. This allows time to observe the seasonal changes and to see the pre-existing patterns in the ecosystem. Within a tighter time-frame, careful observation can still indicate where the energy and resource stocks and flows are, the water, sun, wind, nutrients, wildlife and people. We can observe the niches and microclimates, the natural pathways of people and animals and where the biggest opportunities are.

Essentially the same process takes place when applying permaculture design to a social or economic project. We attempt to draw out the latent potential of a ‘site’ rather than impose an artificial concept developed in isolation from the real situation.

Food Forests – an illustration
Food forests are not a universal solution, but they do offer a good illustration of how permaculture design principles can come together. Rather than a monoculture orchard with rows and rows of a single variety of a single species with bare poisoned earth between them, a food forest is a polyculture that attempts to mimic a natural forest, but one that is based around human need.

A food forest will be diverse in species, which builds resilience to disease and provides a wider range of yields. It will include some leguminous trees, perhaps grouped with different species of fruit trees, to fix nitrogen and act as an insect break. A forest is layered horizontally and temporally so it might have: canopy trees for fruits, nuts and timber; low trees for fruit and coppicing; shrubs for berries and weaving materials; herbaceous bushes for teas, dyes, medicines, mulching; rooting plants for food and to cultivate the soil; soil covers such as fungi, strawberries, culinary herbs; and climbers that penetrate all the layers. Plants will fruit at different times to assure a year-round supply of food and animals may be part of the system, to control insects and plants, and to manure the ground. The ground itself may be ploughed or contoured into swales to trap water and nutrients using a keyline approach.

Perhaps more than anything, permaculture is about increasing the beneficial relationships between things. A permaculture maxim is that every element should fulfil multiple functions, and every function should be supported by multiple elements. In a food forest, for example, a herbaceous plant might be used as a tea or aromatic, to attract beneficial (predatory) insects, to attract pollinators, to mine minerals from sub-soils, and/or to release gases to help ripening.

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The self-sustaining ecosystem can be a metaphor for a horticultural food production system, grasslands agriculture, a whole economy, a series of industrial processes, a community organisation or a single business . All of the many characteristics of a healthy ecosystem: diversity, complex associations, layering, making use of locally available and abundant resources, developing feedback loops, building energy stores, can be usefully applied to foster sustainability, resilience and regenerativity in a range of settings. Aotearoa New Zealand has one of the oldest national permaculture organisations in the world and therefore many experienced practitioners who can advance the discussion and highlight the many opportunities.

Published on the Pure Advantage website 13/04/2018

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To Thine Own Self Be True

(Profile piece on me by Jenny Michie in local Plenty magazine August 2017)

Nandor Tanczos may well have one of the most mispronounced names in the country. Certainly in my head he’s always been Nandor Tandor but I know that’s not right, so while his dog and my dog establish sprawling space at the café where we meet, I need to establish the correct way to say his name.

It’s two syllables – first one is Tahnt – rhymes with aunt. Second is zosh. So Tahnt-zosh. My first name is said Naan-dor with a long ‘a’ like the bread” he explains with a smile. I suspect he’s had this conversation before. And with that outa the way and our respective hounds equally sorted, we can begin.

Nandor Tanczos is an immigrant; his father was a refugee from the 1956 Hungarian uprising and his Cape Coloured mother left South Africa as it was constructing the brutal racial segregation that was Apartheid. Respectively his parents were a refrigeration engineer and a Home Economics teacher/entrepreneur, so we can assume education and hard work were important family values. They found sanctuary in England, where Nandor and his brother were born, and in 1974 the family immigrated to New Zealand.

Being an early and avid reader, young Nandor had great expectations of coming to a land where Maori culture was dominant. His visions of living in a raupō whare and wearing a puipui to a country school were dashed somewhat when the family moved to Takapuna on Auckland’s North Shore. A wonderful place to grow up, digging for pipi on the beach and working in the local dairy for milkshakes and peanut slabs, but not a multicultural experience.

However, those early days as a new migrant gave Nandor both empathy for others, especially second-generation immigrants, and started his own path of self-discovery.

My whole life has been a journey of recreating an identity and sense of belonging, in a way”.

At 14 he spent a year in Hungary with his grandparents. The complete immersion and living under a communist regime had a profound influence on the teenager from Takapuna and fuelled a desire to become a journalist. The family relocated back to England when he finished school and he promptly enrolled in a journalism course in the North of England. Only to drop out towards the end of it.

The reason I wanted to be a journalist was to be a fearless defender of the truth – after a while I realised that was an unlikely career outcome”.

Then followed a complete immersion of another sort. In Thatcher’s Britain there was much to protest and this he did. During the year-long Miners’ Strike the government froze the union’s strike fund; Nandor was on the ground and collected money for the workers, though he was physically prevented from entering mining villages in the North. “That was the first time I’d ever seen the police used so explicitly as a political force. What I saw in Britain was the police used to destroy a movement.”

He was also involved in the anti-nuclear movement and lived on the road; campaigning for peace.

Coming back to New Zealand in 1985 Nandor was keen to continue his studies to understand the world and make it a better place. During his last year at Waikato University he had a Road to Damascus experience with his discovery of Rastafari. “It wasn’t that I became a Rastafari, it’s just that when I discovered who and what Rastafari was, I realised that’s exactly what I was already.”

We of a slightly older generation have known Nandor (in the way that one ever really knows a public figure) since 1999 when he entered Parliament as the dreadlock-wearing, skate-boarding, civil rights and hemp-promoting young Rastafarian List MP for the Green Party. I was working in Parliament at the time and he was a far cry from the usual crop of MPs, both in looks and attitude.

Nandor did in fact introduce a bill to allow hemp production, which was then illegal (it’s a great source of nutrition as well as cloth and the traditional hemp rope) but the Labour-led government of the time decided it was such a good idea “We’re going to think of it ourselves”. They voted his bill down and introduced their own legislation which effectively did the same thing (but not as effectively he says).

Nevertheless, it is still an issue that Nandor is passionate about, but not in the way many people would think.

We’ve taken pastoral farming to an extreme,” he says. “There’s a whole lot of places where we’re trying to grow dairy cows and it’s just not good land use – such as the Canterbury Plains. Our number one environmental issue – and this is true around the world – is pastoral farming. Hemp production, whilst not a magic bullet, is part of the solution of creating mosaics of productive use; that is exploiting the specific niches and microclimates that are in our landscapes instead of this paint-roller effect where we say we’re just going to grow grass everywhere and put cows on it.”

This is in fact permaculture. Nandor’s pet project, which brings us back to how he came to be here in the Bay of Plenty some years after leaving Parliament, which was his ‘home’ for almost nine years (he left after realizing if he stayed any longer, he wouldn’t want to leave, so comfortable is that particular golden cage).

Nandor’s wife is from Murupara and the family moved to the Bay several years ago. But even without his wife’s roots to the Bay, Nandor has long held a torch for this place.

Lots of sunshine, it’s beautiful, it’s got some of the richest history in the country, both Māori and Pākeha; it’s one of the earliest places for Maori settlement and it’s a stronghold of te reo Maori – people are still growing up here as native speakers. And we’ve got this amazing geology. The earth moves, it’s so alive!”

They intend to stay. Nandor says he feels more at home here than anywhere else in the country, partly because it’s so welcoming. “There’s loads of beautiful places but in a lot of smaller centres you get the feeling that if you weren’t born and bred there you’re never quite going to belong.”

Last year Nandor was elected to the Whakatane District Council. After so many years in Parliament, why enter local government? “There’s so many amazing things going on here but I felt there was a disconnection, things aren’t quite integrated together.” And this is where his passion about permaculture comes into play. The essence of which is to link things together to create beneficial relationships.

I see the potential for this area to be leader in sustainability, in resilience, in regenerative economic and community development and so I felt like I had a useful perspective to bring to the politics of the place.”

So in two year’s time what is a job well done on Council going to look like? “Apart from competently doing the basic work, the day to day stuff that needs to be done well to keep things moving, there’s a few things that I want to see some progress on.”

One of them is the Awatapu Reserve, a lagoon formed by the diversion of the Whakatane River in the 1950s. The original area is called Otamakaokao and a group of locals has started a kaitiaki group and is engaging with the community and council to restore the mauri of the area. “The water is really degraded because it was cut off from the river, so it’s dying. So we’ve got this project to bring it back to life and I’d like to see some real progress on this – it’s about ecological restoration, about community development and also about food security. I want to see a management plan for the reserve which is grounded in what the community wants.”

Another marker of success would be real progress towards solar power, where we are seeing solar panels on public buildings and some kind of process for helping households into solar hot water.”

Here Nandor sets me right on the Council consent fees for solar panels. I thought there was a hefty fee but in fact there are no consent fees for putting solar panels on your house. “A proposal came to council to start charging fees for solar, but Council decided not to do that. Actually the Mayor was very strong on it. But I’d like to see more done. Whakatane is regularly the sunshine capital and yet there’s barely any solar power here. I’ve got a 3 point solar plan for the District and I want to make progress on that.”

The third area where he’d like to see progress is in the creative sector, and he really sees the creative industries as a cornerstone in the economic development of the area.

Creative workers bring their own work with them; when they work in that sector, they often work primarily online and we’ve got UF broadband here. You can do what you do and live in the most beautiful part of the country. So at the minimum we need a clear strategy in place as to how we are going support the creative sector in this District.”

I’m a huge fan of this idea. I’ve long thought Whakatane should be to the North Island what Nelson is to the South – a natural home for the creative arts.

Nandor wraps up the interview by bringing us back to permaculture.

Most people apply permaculture to land use, around small holdings and lifestyle blocks, but what I teach is social permaculture.” And it is important to recall here that he’s got a postgraduate diploma in management and sustainability from Waikato University and is working on a thesis around applying permaculture design to economic development.

The great model of sustainability is nature itself. So we need to look at what are the characteristics of natural systems and how we can apply that to our own economic systems. And when you start to do that, it’s a very fruitful way of looking at things.”

Despite not being able to sensibly pronounce his name, I’ve kept an eye on Nandor Tanczos for over 20 years. He was an interesting man in Parliament and he is now an interesting man here in the Bay of Plenty, with tangible goals to improve the area and the people in it. What I didn’t realize then but do now is that he also possesses a quality that I’m valuing more and more the older I get. It seems the wise advice Polonius gave to his son Laertes in Hamlet – “To thine own self be true” – embodies the man sitting across from me.

Plus, he’s got a dog. Need I say more?

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