Stephanie Mitchell: Study Abroad New Zealand

Stephanie Mitchell

Study Abroad: New Zealand

1. My STEP study abroad experience took me to nine cities around the South Island of New Zealand during Maymester2018. This project entailed examining relationships between human societies and the natural environment. Throughout the trip, we reviewed many case studies on natural resource management and the various human, cultural, and environmental consequences of these decisions.
2. My view of the world changed by realizing that the smaller, less populous country of New Zealand has many of the same resource management problems that the United States does, it just prioritizes the environment more. New Zealand places greater importance on preserving their environment partially due to the great economic influence of natural tourism, but also because of a significant difference in community values. In New Zealand many people understand that they rely on and are connected to nature and thus are incentivized to resolve resource overexploitation issues quickly within a community.

In the US, even as an environmentalist, I didn’t think that stakeholders could find solutions without governmental leadership. I believed that the sheer size and the vastly different desires of stakeholders in our country would forever prevent us from coming together to preserve natural resources. Seeing how stakeholders from industry, conservation, and local residences came together to protect resources in New Zealand, transformed my view of American communities. Today, I believe that a lot of good can be achieved by taking a bottom-up approach to natural resource preservation.

3. In each discussion, whether it was with tourism providers, farmers, or government employees, environmental health was recognized as being central to their personal and economic wellbeing. There are a few organizations and people I spoke with that really showed me the power of community. The first being the Elm Wildlife Otago Peninsula Tour. This tourism company works in agreement with a local sheep farmer to bring tourists to the natural habitat of endangered sea lions and yellow-eyed penguins on the edge of the farmer’s property. Both the farmer and Elm Wildlife get increased utility from the land thanks to this agreement between stakeholders. Tourists also benefit from being able to view these very rare species in the wild without causing harm. With profits from the tours, Elm Wildlife buys land to devote to conservation and restores by hand native habitat, thus improving species numbers. The farmer, tourism providers, tourists, conservationists, and native species all benefit from this business model without taking from future generations. The efficiency and intelligence of this circular business model has inspired me to find and support more sustainable businesses like Elm.

The second thought-provoking experience I had was reading a case study about The Guardians of Fiordland. The New Zealand government had spent several years and millions of dollars struggling to come up with a marine management plan entitled “Oceans Policy.” Realizing the urgency of the situation, The Guardians became champions of the bottom-up approach to conservation, particularly in the fisheries around Fiordland. This group of stakeholders includes recreational and commercial fishermen, Maori, charter boat operators, scientists, and environmentalists, all working together to find a solution to the overfishing problem. Without any rules or regulations from the government, recreational fishermen reduced bag limits from 30 blue cod per fisherman to 3, and commercial fishermen voluntarily withdrew from the inner fiords to only fish the coasts. These dramatic sacrifices relied on the realization of a common goal to preserve the fisheries they each depend on. This case study showed me that the quickest and most effective compromise can be determined within a community if representatives for all stakeholders are invited to discuss solutions.

The third experience with Maori Tours Maurice Manawatu, showed me how land and location can bring community together. Kaikoura is home to one of the oldest Maori settlements on the South Island, and many members of the Ngai Tahu tribe still reside here. In 2002, Maurice and his wife, Heather, proposed to the rest of the community a business where they could share their culture and land with tourists. With the community’s blessing, Maori Tours was established in Kaikoura. During our tour, Maurice and his sister shared ancient stories and performed a ceremony welcoming us to the land. Later we were invited for a very personal lunch at Maurice’s house where we wove flax and sang a song written by Maurice’s sister as he played guitar. Finally, we were taken to Kaikoura’s native forests where we sang our song to 800 year old trees. It was there that Maurice taught us how to identify native medicinal plants, like the numbing KawaKawa leaf that we had as tea after lunch to help our coughs. Each activity enlightened me to the fact that much of Maori culture is tied to their interactions with the environment, and if the environment were to be degraded, so would their culture. Their stories and knowledge would no longer have context. In cities like Columbus, our culture and community ties are as patchy as our tree canopy. From my study abroad experience in New Zealand, I have realized the need for an initiative that brings communities together through the one thing that we all have in common, the natural environment.

4. On a personal level, this transformation was significant because it was the first of its kind. I had never traveled to another country before this, so he chance to interact with a culture that is both completely different and shockingly similar offered me a chance to break down my preconceptions about what is possible/practical environmentalism. I realized that a country that really values its natural environment will find and implement solutions quickly and authoritatively. I also found that communities that are informed and passionate will make sacrifices for the greater good without regulations. While the US is a much more populous country with a very different economic and political structure, I will forever hold New Zealand as a model for what a successful environmentally conscious community could look like.