Restoration – a NEET opportunity

During the first 2017 leaders’ debate, Bill English, in response to a question about opportunities for youth, said that “the idea of just putting them (young people) out to plant trees somewhere, that doesn’t work anymore”.  Strangely perhaps, it’s the line that has stuck in my head more than most, and here’s why.

I work at the local environment centre, and in the past few weeks I’ve had a number of calls from people eager to engage in restoration work. I’ve also spent the last year or so working alongside a volunteer who has committed hours and hours of work to restoration, hoping for employment opportunity, but none have presented. These people are frustrated, and so am I, by the lack of opportunity for paid work in restoration. We are frustrated not only because employment in this area barely exists, but also because the lack of employment in this area, given climate change and poor water quality, makes no sense at all.

The Vivid Report, commissioned by Globe NZ (a cross party group committed to achieving our Paris Climate Change commitments), outlines how, as a nation, we can achieve net zero domestic greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Basically, the report’s authors, Vivid Economics, suggest that if we have any chance of achieving this goal, we need to change our land use and plant a whole lot more trees. More specifically, between 2015 and 2070, we need to plant somewhere between 27,000 and 37, 000 hectares per year of exotic trees and 9,000 and 18,000 hectares per year of native trees.

Vivid Economics estimates that there are at least a million hectares of previous marginal agricultural or scrub land available for native tree planting. They suggest that afforestation will effectively provide significant climate change mitigation at relatively low cost. I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that planting trees should be a significant activity for our nation going forward. And work in this area, seems likely if not absolutely necessary.

The regional plan change proposed by Waikato Regional Council (yet to be formally approved) is hopefully a game changer, because it will require farmers to produce environmental management plans and, amongst other things, encourage them to manage their runoff more effectively and undertake riparian planting. Together, our commitments to achieving net zero carbon emissions, and our commitments to cleaning up our waterways, should generate a whole lot more work in the space of restoration.

Now, if I was to talk to a local restoration expert that I know, he would tell me that planting trees and restoring areas is nowhere near as simple as some people may think. Firstly, you’ve got to have the appropriate long-term approvals and you’ve got to ensure that the trees are planted in suitable areas, ideally protected from pests. Both science and good planning are involved. This does not seem like a job that can be left primarily to volunteers.

So just who are actors in the work of restoration now? Hamilton Council coordinates some fantastic restoration projects in Hamilton’s gullies, a restoration project at Hillcrest Stadium as well the Waiwhakareke Natural Heritage Park. All of these projects depend largely on volunteers. In our rural areas, Waikato River Care acts as an intermediary between a variety of funders and restoration work on the ground. Waikato River Care provides contracts to groups like Ngāti Hauā Mahi Trust and Te Whangai who plant our streams and waterways. Fortunately, at least some of this restoration work is paid.

Poverty Action Waikato visited Te Whangai a few years ago and was impressed by the vision and the work. The trust has a particular focus on providing opportunities for disadvantaged people, including young people who are not in employment, education or training (NEET). Located in Miranda, the trust provides education, training and work opportunity, assisting people to develop a sense of identity and belonging, skills and to realise opportunities. The propagation of native plants and landscape services, including river planting, is one of the main activities of the trust. Effectively, Te Whangai is a service that offers necessary opportunities for NEET youth, while enabling the restoration work that can help us achieve our climate change mitigation commitments and improve our ecology and water quality.

While creating opportunities for youth may not, as Bill suggests, be as simple as putting young people out to plant trees, it seems worthy to consider the opportunities of restoration work for our young people, and in particular our NEET youth. Te Whangai is an organisation that is showing leadership in connecting three important goals: youth engagement, climate change mitigation and improved water quality. And it seems to me that we would do well to have a whole lot more flax roots organisations offering the services that they do. Let’s make it happen, for our youth, and for our future!

By Anna Casey-Cox, a member of the Poverty Action Working Group.

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